Debate Over State-Funded Religious Scholarships Not Over

Though Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, another case is brewing.

Like thousands of other students, Teresa Becker declared her major at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan, at the end of her sophomore year, but unlike most students, she also knew that her scholarship money would be revoked as soon as she did.

It was stated in her scholarship acceptance letter that in accordance with the Michigan State Constitution, any degree in theology, divinity or religious education would bar her from receiving state money. "I was faced with a choice of getting the degree I wanted or not," Becker said. "I chose theology."

At the time, she had heard about college student Joshua Davey's case in Washington, so she turned to the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor to see what she could do about hers.

The Supreme Court ruled on Davey's case Wednesday, saying it is constitutional for the state of Washington to deny scholarships to students training for religious professions. Davey went to court claiming that the state was interfering with his free exercise of religion and discriminating against him based on religion. If he had wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor or anything else, he could get the money, but because he wanted to be a minister, he couldn't, and that was discrimination, he said. But the Supreme Court, by a 7-2 vote, ruled against him.

Pat Gillen, associate counsel at Thomas More Law Center, said there's a subtle difference in Becker's case. Davey is looking to devote his life to the ministry. Teresa is looking to study theology from an academic perspective. And though Michigan law bars the award of state money to any student engaged in religious studies, Gillen said the U.S. Constitution doesn't require states to deny funds to students studying theology academically, like Becker.

Michigan State Senator Jason Allen read about Becker's story and has sought legislation to give her monetary relief. She hopes to hear some progress after the Michigan State House meets on March 9.

"It's overwhelming sometimes, because it's me doing it," Becker said. "But I know it's for a good cause."

Walter M. Weber, senior litigation counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, said if kids find themselves in a similar situation, it's a good idea to seek state legislative change. He would not do as Davey did, and sue the state.

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