AU Urges High Court To Uphold Separation In State Constitutions

The U.S. Constitution does not require the state of Washington to give tuition aid to a ministerial student, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told the Supreme Court.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed July 17, Americans United and allied organizations assert that a state law and provisions in the Washington State Constitution barring the use of public funds for religious instruction are permissible to ensure the separation of church and state. The nation's founders, notes AU, repeatedly rejected the use of tax money to pay for religion.

The Supreme Court will hear the Locke v. Davey case during its 2003-04 term, which begins next month. The legal controversy is being closely watched and is considered one of the most important church-state cases to reach the court in decades.

At risk are state laws and constitutional provisions in 37 states that explicitly bar government funding of religion.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that it is discrimination against religion for Washington to offer scholarships for secular education but deny assistance to Joshua Davey to study pastoral ministries at an Assemblies of God college.

Americans United disagrees and in its brief asks the high court to rule that states have considerable leeway in arranging their church-state relationships.

Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, says the stakes in the Washington case are high.

"Groups that oppose church-state separation have been trying to mandate government funding of religion for years," Lynn remarked. "They see this case as their best chance to win a ruling that state funding of religion is not only permissible, but in some cases, required."

Continued Lynn, "That would be a disaster. Americans should not be forced to support clergy or clergy training."

Religious Right organizations see the case as a vehicle for winning government support for religion. The lawsuit is being sponsored by the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal group founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson. Robertdson, who remains president of the organization, is a bitter foe of church-state separation.

In a recent fund-raising letter, Robertdson lawyer Jay Sekulow called Davey the most important case of his life and wrote, "This case gives us the opportunity to end, once and for all, discrimination targeted at religious faith, while removing laws that have been in place for nearly 150 years."

But Americans United insists that Robertson's legal team is wrong. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the AU brief asserts, persuaded Virginia to bar government support for religious instruction, and many other states have followed suit in their constitutions. These provisions, AU says, do not show hostility to religion, but rather respect for each individual's right to follow his or her conscience in such matters.

"Because the spiritual and theological preparation of new clergy has such crucial significance to a religion, state-compelled financial support for clergy training raises especially serious free exercise questions for those taxpayers of differing religious beliefs who prefer not to subsidize core religious activity of others," the brief argues.

In addition to Americans United, other groups joining the brief are the American Civil Liberties Union, People For the American Way Foundation and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.