WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court made a bold statement yesterday for the separation of church and state, ruling that states may deny public scholarship money to students seeking religious training.
In a surprisingly strong 7-2 opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court said that while the First Amendment doesn't always prohibit public funding of religious education, it also does not compel states to fund such education.
Washington state, which denied a merit-based state scholarship to a student who wanted to become a minister, was perfectly in its rights to do so, the justices said.
The ruling gives a boost to proponents of clear divisions between church and state, who had been reeling from a string of court opinions that appeared to blur that distinction. In addition, some advocates said the decision sends an important message about other debates over the intermingling of religious and public life.
'Saying it strongly'
"You have seven justices here making it clear that they have no inherent hostility to church-state separation," said Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal counsel for People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group that supported Washington state in the case.
"They're saying explicitly that denying public funds for religious purposes does not equal religious discrimination, and they're saying it strongly," he said.
Mincberg said the ruling has implications for President Bush's faith-based initiatives, which Bush has defended by equating denial of public funds to religious groups with discrimination.
It also has implications for Maryland, which like Washington state forbids students from using state scholarship money for studies to become a minister, rabbi or other leader of a religious order.
But Maryland students may use state money for purely academic studies in theology at nonsecular colleges, said Janice Doyle, an assistant secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
The court's decision centered on the interplay between two clauses of the First Amendment. One - known as the "establishment clause" - prohibits government endorsement of specific religious thought or institutions. The other - the "free exercise clause" - prevents the government from interfering with citizens' right to practice whatever religion they choose.
Josh Davey, the student in the case, asked the court - which said in 2002 that some public funding of religious education doesn't violate the establishment clause - to find that Washington's constitution violated his free exercise rights by denying him the scholarship.
'Play in the joints'
The court said that there was "play in the joints" between the two clauses and that Washington was occupying a constitutionally safe spot. Its constitution is stricter than the U.S. Constitution on matters of public funding for religious purpose, but that's acceptable, the justices said.
"Even though the differently worded Washington Constitution draws a more stringent line than that drawn by the United States Constitution, the interest it seeks to further is scarcely novel," Rehnquist wrote. Those efforts date back to the time of the founding, the justices said.
Some religious organizations had sought to have the court overturn Washington's decision because some provisions of its constitution were related to so-called Blaine Amendments, crafted by 19th-century religious bigots seeking to suppress Catholic influence on government.
But the justices found no link between that bigotry and the Washington provisions.
Scalia, Thomas dissent
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas issued a strong dissent to the court's ruling, saying Washington was practicing religious discrimination.
Washington "has created a generally available public benefit," Scalia wrote. "It has then carved out a solitary course of study for exclusion: Theology. No field of study but religious is singled out for disfavor in this fashion."
Patrick Korten, a spokesman for the Becket Fund, an interfaith public-interest law firm that backed Davey in the suit, said the court's decision is both surprising and disappointing.
"For someone who has been sitting on the court for so long, you'd think Rehnquist would be a little wary of talking about 'play in the joints' in a constitutional provision," Korten said. But he said the opinion also offered some hope.
The seven justices in the majority agreed that the Blaine Amendments found in many state constitutions were "inherently constitutionally suspect," Korten said.
Sun staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this article.