Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind


Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (1986) addressed the question of whether a student’s use of state disability funds at a religious college would violate the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a student’s receiving such financial assistance and using it at a religious college did not amount to the kind of direct subsidy prohibited by the Establishment Clause. However, the Court left open the question whether the Supreme Court of Washington, on remand, could prohibit the financial assistance under its more restrictive state constitution. In fact, Washington’s high court did exactly that on remand, finding that the indirect subsidies to religious institutions, even if not prohibited by the Establishment Clause, were prohibited under the Washington constitution.
Witters also left open the question of whether Washington’s denial of student aid under its more restrictive constitution would serve to deprive students of rights protected under the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause, a question that the Supreme Court addressed 18 years later in Locke v. Davey (2004). In that case, the Court invalidated another scholarship program from Washington State that would have helped to pay the tuition of a student with dual majors who wished to study to become a pastoral minister.

Facts of the Case


Larry Witters was a student at Inland Empire School of the Bible, a private Christian college in Spokane, Washington, where he was preparing for a career as a pastor, missionary, or youth director. Although Witters had a progressive eye condition that qualified him under state law for financial aid, when he applied for vocational rehabilitation assistance to the Washington Commission for the Blind, officials denied his request. In rejecting the student’s request, the officials relied on a state policy statement prohibiting the use of state funds to assist individuals in the pursuit of degrees or careers in theology or related areas.
Disappointed with the outcome, the student appealed the commission’s denial of his request to a state hearing officer, who affirmed its order in light of a state constitutional provision prohibiting public money or property being appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or the support of any religious establishment. At this point, the plaintiff filed suit in a state superior court, seeking both declaratory and injunctive relief to receive rehabilitation assistance. The court upheld the commission’s decision, relying on the same state constitutional grounds as the hearing officer.
Subsequently, the Supreme Court of Washington also upheld the commission’s action but did so by relying on the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution rather than its own state constitution, as the hearing officer and state superior court had done. The Supreme Court of Washington maintained that the state’s providing financial rehabilitation assistance to Witters would have the primary effect of advancing religion and thus would violate the second prong of the tripartite Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) test. Although the Lemon test was developed in the context of K–12 education to determine whether government action violated the Establishment Clause, it has had wide application in disputes involving religion and education. The second prong of the test states that the primary effect of a law or program must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. Applying the Lemon test to Witter, the Supreme Court of Washington held that the Establishment Clause prohibited the granting of the student’s request for assistance. The student again appealed, this time to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling


On further review, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed in favor of the student, holding that there was no violation of the Establishment Clause. The Court noted in passing that the Washington law providing services to blind students clearly had a secular purpose, as required under the first prong of the Lemon test. To this end, the Court acknowledged that no one seriously claimed that legislators’ purpose in enacting a statute that promoted the well-being of individuals with visual disabilities had been to endorse religion.
Focusing most of its analysis on the second prong of the Lemon test—whether providing assistance to the student would have had the impermissible effect of subsidizing religion, the Court distinguished between a state’s direct financial assistance to an individual student and a state’s direct financial assistance to a religious institution. Pointing out that the Establishment Clause prohibits direct rather than indirect subsidies to religion, the Court observed that nothing in the Establishment Clause forbids state employees who receive their paychecks from donating the money to religious institutions. Applying this distinction between direct and indirect subsidies to the student’s reception of state financial assistance, the Court was of the opinion that any money from Washington’s program that flowed to a religious institution did so only as a result of the genuinely independent and private choices of aid recipients. The Court recognized that the program did not create incentives for students to use their funds at religious as opposed to secular institutions. In fact, the Court indicated that officials from the State of Washington failed to furnish evidence that any other student had ever used such funding to finance an education at a religious institution. The Court further determined that a student’s choice to use neutrally available state aid to help pay for religious education was not an endorsement of religion. Finally, the Court noted that nothing would prevent the Supreme Court of Washington from applying its far stricter constitutional prohibitions to the facts on remand. However, the Court refused to provide advice as to whether it would be a violation of the Free Exercise Clause if, on remand, the Supreme Court of Washington decided that aid to students at religious institutions violated the state’s constitution.

A Final Ruling


On remand in Witters v. State Commission for the Blind (1989), the Supreme Court of Washington did prevent the student from receiving aid. The court forbade granting the student assistance on the ground that doing so would have violated a prohibition in the state constitution against using public funds to pay for any type of religious instruction.
Ralph D. Mawdsley

See also State Aid and the Establishment Clause; Tilton v. Richardson
Further Readings
Witters v. Commission for the Blind, 689 P.2d 53 (Wash. 1984).
Legal Citations
Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).
Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004).
Witters v. State Commission for the Blind, 771 P.2d 1119 (Wash. 1989).
Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind, 474 U.S. 481 (1986).