Church-state ruling raises logical issues
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling the other day that it is OK to deny financial aid to a college student who wants to study religion seems like a classic case of separation of church and state - or is it?
The high court said anyone studying for a theological degree was training to eventually lead a religious life and public funding cannot be used for religious studies. It was not a close decision, with seven of the nine justices supporting the finding that Washington state did not have to provide a merit scholarship to the student who had claimed his Constitutionally-protected religious freedom was violated.
The most pointed argument against the ruling came from Justice Antonin Scalia.
The traditionally conservative justice relied on precedent - normally a major factor in judicial decisions - to reach his conclusion that the student should be given the scholarship
He cited a ruled from the high court from five decades ago which said the state of New Jersey had no right to exclude people from welfare benefits simply on the basis of their religious beliefs. Scalia explained that if a benefit is supposed to be available to all members of the public, then it is clearly discriminatory to single out people solely on the basis of religion, which the Constitution prohibits.
"That is precisely what the state of Washington has done here," Scalia wrote. "It has created a generally available public benefit, whose receipt is conditioned only on academic performance, income and attendance at an accredited school. It has then carved out a solitary course of study for exclusion: theology."
That raises interesting possibilities. What would happen, for example, if the government approved a tax rebate for all citizens, but then said those in the religion "profession" couldn't receive it because that would mean the state was supporting religion?
Scalia offered his own example. "Today's holding is limited to training the clergy, but its logic is readily extendible, and there are plenty of directions to go. What next? Will we deny priests and nuns their prescription-drug benefits on the ground that taxpayers' freedom of conscience forbids medicating the clergy at public expense?"
The logic of Scalia's argument is compelling. Unfortunately, most of the justices chose to ignore it.