Locke v. Davey


Locke v. Davey (2004) concerned the question of whether a state scholarship program violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment when, in accordance with a state constitutional provision, it explicitly barred funding for students pursuing degrees in theology. In upholding the program, the Supreme Court discussed the relationship between the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. The Court found that the state’s policy of refusing to fund theological degrees did not violate students’ free exercise rights and that the policy reflected the state’s interest against the establishment of religion. As such, Davey has important implications for state-sponsored scholarship programs in higher education, because it recognizes that states can impose limits on the amount of scholarship aid that they provide to students who attend religiously affiliated institutions of higher learning.

Facts of the Case


The Washington State Legislature established the Promise Scholarship Program to assist eligible postsecondary students with education-related expenses. The scholarship, which was renewable for one year, was paid for out of the state’s general fund, prorated among all eligible students. In 1999–2000, the scholarship awarded $1,125 to each student. In order to qualify, students had to meet specified requirements. First, the student had to have graduated from a high school in Washington State. Second, the student must have graduated in the top 15% of his or her class or have achieved a score of at least 1,200 on the SAT I or 27 on the ACT. Third, the income of the student’s family could not be higher than 135% of the state average. Fourth, the student had to enroll at least half time in an eligible institution of higher education in Washington State. Eligible institutions included religiously affiliated, accredited colleges and universities. However, consistent with the state constitution’s anti–religious establishment provision, the statute further required that no scholarship could be awarded to a student pursuing a degree in theology. Students using scholarship funds were permitted to attend classes in theology, provided that they were seeking degrees in different fields.
Jonathan Davey received a Promise Scholarship and enrolled in Northwest College (now Northwest University), a private, accredited institution located near Seattle that was associated with the Assemblies of God Church. Davey, whose ambition was to become a church pastor, chose to pursue a double major in pastoral studies and business administration. At a meeting with the college’s financial aid director, Davey discovered that he would be unable to receive his Promise Scholarship unless he signed a form stating that he would not use the money to pursue a theological degree. When he refused to sign the form, Davey did not receive any of the funds. Davey then filed suit against state officials based on the theory that their refusal to disburse the scholarship funds to him violated the Free Speech, Establishment, and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
A federal trial court in Washington State denied Davey’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented officials from withholding the scholarship funds before granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, essentially dismissing his claim. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed in favor of Davey in reasoning that the state impermissibly singled out religion for unfavorable treatment. Because the state’s concerns about preventing the establishment of religion did not amount to a compelling state interest, the court held that the state had infringed on Davey’s right to free exercise of religion. Dissatisfied with the outcome, state officials sought further review.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling


The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit, declaring that the restrictions on funding under the Promise Scholarship Program did not violate either the Free Exercise or Free Speech Clauses. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, rejected the plaintiff’s assertion that the scholarship’s lack of facial neutrality toward religion necessarily meant that the restrictions violated the First Amendment. The Court explained that excluding funding for theological degrees was not presumptively unconstitutional, because the state was neither criminalizing nor penalizing the study of theology. Instead, the Court pointed out that the state merely refused to pay for the student’s study of theology. To this end, the Court maintained that the state was not obligated to provide funding for such degrees simply because it offered scholarships for degrees in secular subjects.
In rejecting Davey’s free speech claims, the Supreme Court posited that because the scholarship was not a forum for speech, the state’s refusal to fund theological degrees could not be considered viewpoint discrimination. If anything, the Court interpreted the state’s purpose in establishing the scholarship program as being designed to assist lower-income college students, not to promote diverse viewpoints on campus. The Court next rejected Davey’s assertion that the state constitutional provision in question was motivated by antireligious, particularly anti-Catholic, bias, finding no evidence to suggest that the prohibition on funding theological degrees was motivated by an animus toward religion. Because the state’s actions did not violate Davey’s free exercise rights, the Court required only that the state show a rational basis for the different treatment afforded to theology students. The Court added that the state had a substantial interest in not funding degrees in theology, because the state constitution forbade such aid. Further, the Court was convinced that the lack of such funding placed a relatively minor burden on students. As such, the Court concluded that the state did not violate Davey’s rights to equal protection.
Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented. Scalia asserted that the state’s establishment of a new benefit through the Promise Scholarship created a new baseline against which the Court ought to have measured burdens on religion. According to Scalia, the state, in its assessment, was seeking to replace one benefit, namely money to pursue students’ chosen areas of study, with lesser benefits of money to pursue courses of study that individuals would not have chosen. Scalia thus rejected the majority’s claim that the lack of animus toward religion on the part of the authors of the state constitution was relevant to the case at bar. In cases dealing with other varieties of facial discrimination, Scalia observed, such as discrimination on the basis of sex or race, the Court considered primarily the present-day effects of the law and only secondarily the motives of the legislators. In Justice Scalia’s view, when the state chose to withhold the full benefit of the scholarship only from those students who wished to study theology, its doing so violated the Free Exercise Clause.
James Mawdsley

See also equal protection analysis; State Aid and the Establishment Clause
Further Readings
Russo, C. J., & Mawdsley, R. D. (2004). Locke v. Davey: The Supreme Court limits state aid to students in religious institutions. School Business Affairs, 70(7), 36–38.
Legal Citations
Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004).