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Editorial: Flunking tolerance / States shouldn't exclude theology from student aid

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Accusations of religious bigotry are often the last refuge of a politician who has no better arguments to offer; witness the absurd assertion that senators who criticize the legal views of one of President Bush's judicial nominees, a Roman Catholic, are hanging a "No Catholics Need Apply" sign over the federal courthouse.

But just because some complaints about a bias against religion are bogus doesn't mean that they all are. Just ask Teresa Becker, a student at Ave Maria College in Michigan and the subject of a recent article in The New York Times. When Ms. Becker decided to major in theology, her state aid was cut from $2,750 to zero. State officials informed her that under state law, students could not receive state aid if they were pursuing a degree in theology, divinity or religious education.

In response to a lawsuit by Ms. Becker alleging religious discrimination, a federal court issued a preliminary ruling in her favor. That ruling should become the law of the land when the U.S. Supreme Court addresses the issue. In denying state aid to students who study theology, Michigan and 10 other states are running afoul of several constitutional principles.

Yes, the First Amendment prohibits states from creating an "establishment" of religion. But the same amendment guarantees the "free exercise" of religion. There always has been a tension between these two commands, but in recent years the Supreme Court and other courts have staked out a sensible middle position.

State governments may not subsidize or endorse religious worship (such as official prayer in public schools), but when states make a benefit generally available, a qualified recipient should not be excluded because there is a religious dimension to how that benefit is used. For example, in 1993 the Supreme Court upheld the use of government-funded sign language interpreters for a deaf student enrolled in a parochial school.

Teresa Becker's situation is not identical to that of the deaf student. But the general approach ought to be the same. Actually, Michigan's prohibition is vulnerable on several legal grounds. One could argue that it burdens Ms. Becker's free exercise of religion. Alternatively, one could argue that, in excluding religion majors from state aid, Michigan is engaging in unconstitutional "viewpoint discrimination."

A state need not provide financial aid to college students, but once it establishes a general policy of subsidizing recognized courses of study at accredited institutions, it cannot pick and choose which studies it pays for on the basis of what it perceives to be the worldview inculcated in the courses. (A different case would be a scholarship scheme that favored some majors -- mathematics or engineering, say -- because the Legislature was concerned about a shortage of certain skills in society.)

As is always the case with constitutional issues involving government and religion, lines must be drawn by the courts. A case now heading for the U.S. Supreme Court from the state of Washington involves a different sort of restriction on the use of state funds for theological instruction that "resembles worship." But in Ms. Becker's situation theology was an academic course presumably open to believers and nonbelievers alike.

It is a measure of how extreme the Michigan law is that Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that is wary of state aid to religion, concedes that its language might be too sweeping. When that separationist watchdog doesn't bark, it's a good bet that there is no issue of an "establishment of religion."

Michigan should end its discrimination against theology students -- and if it doesn't do so, the courts should intervene.

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