Locke v. Davey

Following is the case brief for Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004)

Case Summary of Locke v. Davey:

  • Washington State has a Promise Scholarship Program to help high-achieving college students with expenses.
  • The scholarship cannot be used if a student is studying a devotional theology degree.
  • Respondent Davey, a scholarship winner, sued in federal court upon learning that his pastoral ministries degree was not covered by the scholarship.
  • The District Court dismissed Davey’s suit.
  • The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the scholarship exclusion violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, holding that the State’s exclusion of a devotional theology degree from a scholarship program does not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Locke v. Davey Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The State of Washington established a scholarship, the Promise Scholarship Program, to help students with college expenses.  The State Constitution prohibits using the scholarship to pursue a devotional theology degree.

Davey won a Promise Scholarship and attended Northwest College, a church-affiliated school that was eligible under the scholarship program.  Davey chose a double major in pastoral ministries and business management.  Upon learning that the pastoral ministries degree was a devotional program not covered by the scholarship, Davey brought a civil rights claim in federal court, claiming that the scholarship restriction violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court dismissed Davey’s claims.
  • The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that the theology exclusion was unconstitutional.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Did the State’s exclusion of a devotional theology degree from a scholarship program violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A theology exclusion from an otherwise inclusive scholarship program does not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Reasoning:

This case is about the friction between the First Amendment’s prohibition of a state establishing a religion, and its requirement that a state allow free religious expression.  In other words, it lies at the crossroads between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

In this case, Washington State’s scholarship does not deny the right to practice religion, nor force someone to choose between religious belief and a government benefit.  Rather, the State simply chose not to fund a certain category of instruction.   Such a choice, based in anti-establishment concerns, has support in history.

Further, the scholarship program has no animus towards religion.  The program allows students to attend religious schools, and take devotional theology courses.  Finally, the State has a substantial interest in keeping taxpayer money away from funding devotional degrees, and puts a minor burden on scholarship winners.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting Opinion (Scalia):

Previous opinions by the Justices in the majority in this case assert that burdens on religious practice are not neutral, and deserve the most rigorous of scrutiny.  The majority opinion in this case cannot be reconciled with those previous pronouncements.  The State in this case facially discriminates against religion.

Dissenting Opinion (Thomas):

The study of theology does not necessarily implicate religious devotion or faith.

Significance:

Locke v. Davey is a recent example of the Court grappling with the line between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.  In this case, the scholarship program singles out religion for exclusion on the one hand, but it also does not force taxpayers to support a particular religion on the other.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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