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Published: Thursday, 8/14/2003

A little too cautious

Michigan is trying to hide behind the wall that separates church and state in its arbitrary decision to deny a college student state scholarship funds because her major is theology.

The student's pursuit is clearly in the academic area; she has no plans to enter the ministry or make religion her profession. In that context, the study of theology is as important a discipline as literature, history, or science.

Teresa Becker, a junior at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, received $1,200 in state scholarship assistance as a freshman, and $2,750 more as a sophomore. The state told her she could expect that amount again in her junior year.

But then she chose theology as her major. When the state found out, it canceled her scholarship based on a Michigan law, which state officials explained in a letter to her, stating that “students enrolled in a course of study leading to a degree in theology, divinity, or religious education are not eligible to receive an award.”

That would otherwise be a reasonable position in the ongoing effort to keep public money from supporting religious enterprises.

However, the Michigan law seems vague. If the law refuses theology majors state funds because they intend to pursue religious professions, that's grounds for denial. But that's not what the law says, and the issue has perplexed the director of the Michigan scholarship office, and prompted criticism from Republican state Sen. Jason Allen of Traverse City, who called the history of the law murky. It was established in the 1960s, yet nobody seems to understand its original purpose.

Several states deny public funds to theology students. The state of Washington is embroiled in a similar legal case. The Washington law is narrower than Michigan's in that it seems to say that teaching religion as an academic subject is fine, but not if it's to inspire devotion.

A Washington theology student planning to be a minister sued when he was denied state funds. In Michigan, Ms. Becker, as committed as she may be to her faith, has not considered a religious career. But majoring in theology doesn't mean a student will choose a life of devotion. Many who selected theology as their undergraduate major have gone on to become attorneys, writers, teachers, and professors.

A degree in theology, like a degree in philosophy, can be invaluable no matter what career path one might choose.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide on the Washington case next term, and its decision may influence the Michigan lawsuit. For now, the U.S. District Court in Detroit has issued a preliminary ruling in Ms. Becker's favor and told the state to put her scholarship money in escrow until there is a final ruling. The state will probably appeal.

Reasonable safeguards are appropriate. But Michigan's law is neither narrow nor clear enough to justify denying a theology major state scholarship help, especially when the pursuit is academic. If that's allowed, who's to say Michigan and other states won't one day begin to deny assistance to philosophy, psychology, or anthropology majors on the grounds that those disciplines also somehow jeopardize traditional barriers of separation.



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