As you all know, I am way into church-state separation. However, I can’t decide where I stand on the case currently before the Supreme Court, Locke v. Davey. (Brief summary: The constitution of Washington state forbids spending of public money on religious education. Joshua Davey receives a university scholarship from the state, but it is rescinded after he declares a theology major. He sues, claiming religious discrimination.)

Personally, I believe the state should not give scholarships to theology students. But I believe this because I think theology is a big steaming pile of crap, and it would therefore be a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. And so if the state were to take my position on theology scholarships, it would no longer be neutral with respect to religion. I also believe that this neutrality is the most fair position of the state, and this belief overrules my belief about the crapitude of theology. I’m driven to the conclusion that the state should grant scholarships based on merit and need and regardless of the subject matter, whether it is physics or theology or underwater basket-weaving (as long as the course of study is at an accredited institution).

Well, what about vouchers then? Is it the same principle? I suppose it is: as long as a school is providing a decent education, the state should be blind to whether it’s a religious institution. (However, I would consider the fact of evolution part of a decent education. This is not in the same category as my opinion on theology; evolution is one of the best-confirmed theories in science.) I’m forced to conclude, as well, that voucher programs don’t violate church-state separation, however uncomfortable I may be with my taxes funding religion classes. (Vouchers may be constitutional, but I still think they’re awful policy for other reasons, like, oh, scalability.)

Ok, what about religious charities? (Usually called “faith-based”, but that term’s a bit cumbersome.) Apply the same principle: the state should give money to whoever wants to feed soup to the homeless, blind to the religious affiliation or lack thereof. Each successive application of this principle is ratcheting up my discomfort level. Now we want to give government funds to guys who are going to tell the poor and destitute to accept Jesus and everything will be ok? And you know he’s just going to bring them into the demon dimension as slave labor. No, wait, that was a Buffy episode.

So I approve of this one guy getting his theology scholarship and suddenly I’m giving Bush the go-ahead to funnel federal money to Franklin Graham’s proselytizing. (Not that he needed my, or anyone else’s, go-ahead – can it be a slippery-slope argument if we’re already at the bottom of the slope?) Did I go wrong somewhere?

Well, maybe the state does have a right to decide what is a useful expenditure of its money, and that, say, a theology scholarship isn’t in the public interest, or a religious school can’t be more efficient than a public school due to the expenses of religion classes and incense and stained-glass windows. No, that’s obviously bad, because when Roy Moore is elected governor of Alabama he’ll decide not to grant scholarships to biology students, because evolution is a big steaming pile of crap, and it would be a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars to fund the teaching of it. Or is that so bad? Maybe the state should have this discretion, and if the people elect ignorant morons who use it in stupid ways it’s their own damn fault. Given the frequency with which ignorant morons are elected, this is not such a comforting thought.

I’ve successfully tied my brain into knots with this issue. Any insights are welcome.

5 thoughts on “contemplation/discretion

  1. Tracy Manford


    I don’t know what to make of your post, Travis. I agree with the separation of church and state. There are too many different religions out there for us to allow the government to be involved in any way. But not letting a boy use his scholarship to study theology….I just don’t know how I feel about that.

    I myself would never study theology, except to possibly learn about impact religion has had on our collective history. But who am I to tell a kid that he has earned this grant and now he can’t use it because I don’t agree with what he’s studying?

    I never know what to say to people that don’t “believe” in evolution. They baffle me.

    How do you feel about churches having a tax-free status? Does that get your shorts in a knot as well?

    I don’t think we should tell anyone what they can or cannot study, just because we don’t believe in it, or think it’s useful, or what have you. I mean, look at people who major in English Lit. You can argue that they get a deeper understanding of our culture through art, right? Well a theology student could argue that he/she is getting a deeper understanding of his/her culture through the study of religion. And besides, it’s his tax dollars too, right?

    Now my brain is twisted in knots. I’ve never been good at writing out my arguments. I think better when I’m talking, I can really get going. But writing, the juices just don’t flow the same way…I always feel like I’m not getting my point across. I just can’t find my place on this issue. I’m really not a fan of organized religion AT ALL but I can’t see myself dictating the educational rights of others. Good grief, I need to go read something mindless and trashy.

  2. Arcane Gazebo

    Re: Hmmm

    I’m struggling to find a coherent position on this. My instinct is the same as yours: the kid should be able to use the grant for whatever he wants to study; this seems like more of an academic freedom than a religious freedom.

    However, I think the state’s case is also stronger than I let on. I used the word “theology” throughout my post to describe his studies, but the actual name of his major is pastoral ministries. If I don’t want the government funding religious proselytization or paying for churches to be built, it stands to reason that I shouldn’t want the government paying to train new ministers, which is exactly what’s happening in this case. I think there’s a real, observable difference between a religious studies program as an academic pursuit and studying to be a minister, and this is where a (very fine) line might be drawn.

    I have the feeling that in my post I was mixing up a number of questions that should be separate:

    • (The main one:) Are the state of Washington’s actions in this case constitutional?
    • (Slightly different:) Would awarding a scholarship to a ministries major be an undesirable breach of church-state separation?
    • (Completely different:) Would awarding said scholarship be a waste of money? And, is it sometimes necessary for the state to waste money in the interest of fairness?

    But then, I also want to be self-consistent. Hence the discussion of (a) vouchers and (b) federal funding of religious charities. In which I similarly confuse the above issues.

    As for taxation of churches, I think it’s a bit more removed from these issues, but here’s my opinion: I think churches should receive the same consideration that other non-profit organizations do with regard to taxes. However, they shouldn’t get any additional benefit (or penalty, for that matter) simply by virtue of being a religious organization. I don’t know enough about tax law to say whether the present situation is to my liking (although I can guess).

  3. Tracy Manford

    Re: Hmmm

    Okay, well pastoral ministries is a very different idea…you’re right, it’s not religious studies as an academic pursuit, it’s definitely different. Thanks for clarifying that.

    As to your three questions:

    1. Are the state of Washington’s actions in this case constitutional?

    You’re right, it’s a brain twister. On one hand you have the separation of church and state, which would mean that you could argue that it’s not right for the state to fund a student’s education in the ministries. On the OTHER hand…this kid was obviously awarded this scholarship based on his merits in academia. Could this be considered some form of persecution? I guess my answer to this first question is yes, it is probably technically constitutional for the state of Washington to do what they did. But then again I don’t have a copy of the Constitution in front of me.

    2. Would awarding a scholarship to a ministries major be an undesirable breach of church-state separation?

    My gut says no. I can’t help it. People came over to the U.S. to escape religious persecution. So now we’re going to start telling them that their own tax dollars can’t be used for their own education? I don’t know, Travis, that gives me a bad feeling.

    3. Would awarding said scholarship be a waste of money?

    Absolutely not. You can’t go there, Travis. That is a totally personal argument for you. Couldn’t I argue that some yutz majoring in 16th century Russian literature is wasting my money? Or my dad thinking that one of my majors being vocal performance was a waste of money? Who is he to say? Are you planning on dictating the education of everyone in America? Because that’s what you trend to when you start this line of questioning.

    Why is it that whenever I discuss religion with you I start to feel like some sort of fanatic? I don’t even go to church, but I always end up defending them. I guess I just don’t like absolutes. I’m not explaining myself well. Crap.

  4. Arcane Gazebo

    Re: Hmmm

    On constitutionality:
    I obviously know very little of constitutional law myself, but it seems to me the two competing issues are the Establishment clause and Equal Protection. The former argument is tricky for me because it looks very different under various framings of the situation. “The government gives scholarships to deserving students, no matter what their intended course of study” doesn’t sound problematic, but “The government is subsidizing the training of ministers” does rather sound like an establishment of religion. As for Equal Protection, the argument is that the state is discriminating against religious people by not paying for religious education. The trouble here is that there’s no equivalent of a pastoral ministries major for the non-religious. As a result, Washington atheists who want to use state funds for education don’t have any more options than the religious – in that sense, they are being treated equally. (It also occurs to me that an atheist who wanted to study pastoral ministries, perhaps with subversive purposes in mind, would be denied funds as well. This doesn’t invalidate the Equal Protection argument by itself, I think, because this is a rather unlikely situation.) In the end I don’t see that the constitutional issues are clear-cut, which from the description of the oral arguments puts me in good company.

    On persecution and tax dollars:
    If it were just the student’s tax dollars in question we could solve the problem with a nice tax cut and then everyone would be able to afford college. However, all of Washington’s taxpayers contributed to this student’s scholarship, so it’s worth giving them a little thought as well. Bill Gates is probably the single largest contributor, and he might like some more CS majors. :) But more importantly, what about Washington’s gay taxpayers? Should they have to pay for education that teaches that they are sinners? A friend of mine has parents who are Hindu and live in Washington. Should they be paying for classes that teach that Hindus are going to hell? Should they be subsidizing training someone to go out and preach that their deeply held beliefs are false? This is why religious education is a special case. You don’t have these problems with 16th century Russian literature.

    On the state’s discretion in awarding scholarships:
    I do recognize the problem here, in that the state can decide not to fund legitimate academic subjects because there’s no tangible benefit (or for worse reasons – that was the point of my Roy Moore bit in the original post). However, I think we have to bite the bullet here, because the state needs this kind of discretion. For one thing, presumably not every crackpot school is eligible for these scholarships – the state has to draw some kind of line as to what is legitimate. But I think the state should have the power to be very specific about what it wants to fund. If there’s a statewide shortage of doctors, don’t we want to allow the state to set up a special fund for medical students? I may think PhD students like myself are important, but I wouldn’t have any argument with this course of action. No one’s proposing that we dictate everyone’s education – people are still free to study ministry or Russian lit or whatever, but for some subjects they have to find someone other than the government to pay for it.

    Besides: if God needs more ministers, you think he’d be able to figure out the funding angle himself. :)

    Anyway, you don’t sound like a fanatic from this end (and you’re probably in agreement with at least four Supreme Court justices). And your comments are helpful in getting me closer to that elusive coherent position…

  5. Tracy Manford

    Re: Hmmm

    I think it’s one thing to set up a special fund for medical students if you need doctors, but to do it to the detriment of OTHER students is where I have a problem. Who is to say what is or is not legitimate? We could argue about that for days :)

    On the flip side I do find myself agreeing with you that people could go elsewhere to find funding if the government won’t pay.

    Again, I find myself at odds with myself.

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