The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case today that brings the age-old rivalry between church and state to the public forefront once again.
In a case championed by the American Center for Law and Justice, Joshua Davey is suing Washington state for revoking a state scholarship awarded to him for his undergraduate education. The state withdrew the money when Davey attempted to apply the funds to ministerial studies at Northwest College, a Christian college in Kirkland, Wash. The state’s decision has engendered a national public debate about the proper relationship between church and state, prompting some Yale officials to throw support behind the state’s decision.
Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said he felt Washington state took the proper actions in withholding the scholarship from Davey.
“I’m a firm believer in the separation of church and state,” Attridge said.
Attridge called Davey’s desired use of the funds “legally problematic,” as it could be seen as an endorsement of a particular religion by the state. Instead of state aid, Attridge suggested utilizing other means of payment. Attridge said there are no current Yale Divinity School students who use state scholarships to pay for tuition, and he said he sees no reason to alter this format.
“Students here are supported by Yale [aid], [the support of their] denominations, and federal loans,” Attridge said.
University Chaplain Frederick Streets said he felt each argument had some merits. But given that Davey pursued only a minister’s degree at a Christian college, Streets said, it is hard to justify the use of state funds, regardless of Davey’s denomination.
“It would be hard for the state to argue that it is not supporting a religion [if it awards scholarship funds to students like Davey], whether [they] be Muslim, Jewish, whatever,” Streets said.
Streets said he would have questioned the state’s decision to withhold the funds had Davey attended a four-year college, since in this case the state’s actions would have hindered Davey’s ability to get a basic college education. Streets also said the use of a state scholarship in this manner would not breach the separation of church and state, as long as the religious degree is placed in the context of a general college education.
“The more important issue is for the state to promote a college education rather than specific majors,” Streets said.
Christopher Ashley ’05, a member of the Yale Christian Fellowship, said he disagreed with the state’s decision regardless of the institution to which it is applied.
“My take on the Establishment Clause [in the First Amendment] is that it does not forbid the government from supporting religion but from establishing a preferred religion,” Ashley said.
But Ashley said the state must then support all religions that pass a test establishing their status as a religion, and he suggested that the courts use their time to delve into this issue.
Davey was awarded a Promise Scholarship in 1999 from Washington state prior to his decision to pursue the study of religion. The monetary value of the scholarship amounts to less than $3,000. After the state retracted his funding, Davey sued the state in 2000, claiming the policy infringed upon his right to religious freedom.
Davey, who graduated with a degree in religion and philosophy, has since given up on his dreams of becoming a minister. He is currently a first-year student at Harvard Law School.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report