03/01/04 — Favoritism? Court says it’s okay to ban aid for future preachers

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Favoritism? Court says it’s okay to ban aid for future preachers

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that states can discriminate against people studying for the clergy when awarding state-paid scholarships. On first blush, the ruling sounds discriminatory. The states — in this case, Washington state — can help someone become a lawyer or professor, but they can’t help him become a preacher.

Upon reflection, however, the ruling makes sense.

The Washington law certainly would be unconstitutional if it discriminated against any particular religion — if, for example, it allowed scholarship help for a Buddhist but not a Christian. But apparently it treats all religions alike, so it does not violate the First Amendment.

Some observers of such issues see greater implications in this 7-2 ruling. They think it might signal the court’s thinking on such questions as whether school vouchers can be used at private primary and secondary schools that are associated with churches.

For background, some states — not North Carolina — provide the vouchers to parents who wish to use private instead of public schools. The value of the vouchers is about the same as what it would cost the state if the children attended public schools.

Teacher organizations like the National Education Association oppose the vouchers, saying they spell doom for public schools. Supporters of vouchers say that children deserve as good an education as possible, and the state should not discourage parents who choose better schools that are private.

Some opponents are now saying that if parents use the vouchers at church-related schools, the First Amendment is violated.

That might be true if the vouchers could be used at schools affiliated with only selected religions. As long as all religions were treated the same, however, it would seem that there would be no prohibition.

The First Amendment does not say that government can have nothing to do with religion. Rather, it says that government cannot promote one religion over another.

Published in Editorials on March 1, 2004 1:06 PM