THE U.S. Supreme Court seemed deeply divided during oral arguments in a case about the refusal of the state of Washington to fund scholarships for people studying for the ministry. But in the end, it upheld, appropriately, that state's practice in a 7-2 vote.
The decision could moot a similar case in Michigan, where a woman lost her state scholarship after declaring a theology major at a Catholic college in Ypsilanti. But state legislators appear poised to fill the breach and then some.
The constitution in Washington and a law in Michigan bar support for clergy training. The Michigan litigant said she didn't plan a religious profession.
That may be too fine a point to sway judges considering her case, though we still think it should.
In Washington, college student Joshua Davey, backed by the Bush Administration, had argued that his state's revocation of his scholarship after he declared himself a divinity student amounted to religious discrimination.
No, said the court majority. Instead, this case, like some before it, involves the "play in the joints between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the [federal] Constitution." They were referring to actions allowed by the former but not required of the latter.
Mr. Davey argued that his dual major of "pastoral ministries and business management/administration" was legitimate in a state that does not bar its scholarship students from attending fully accredited religion-sponsored schools, where they may take "devotional ministry" courses.
But Washington, like many other states, the justices noted, has age-old constitutional prohibitions against using tax funds to support the ministry, and these reinforce "the conclusion that religious instruction is of a different ilk from other professions" and validate more stringent state provisions.
"The State's interest in not funding the pursuit of devotional degrees is substantial," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority.
The bad news for Mr. Davey would seem to be bad news for Teresa Becker, the Michigan woman who won a preliminary federal court ruling in Detroit that the state, in her case, had probably engaged in religious discrimination.
It wouldn't hurt for Michigan, and others with similar prohibitions, to review their procedures and to allow awards in pursuit of degrees in theology that do not lead to ministry.
Like philosophy degrees, these have been the academic underpinnings of many a person in law, social work, university scholarship, teaching, and writing. Interest in them isn't confined to ministry professionals.
But the basic principle of denying public funds when a student's pursuit is purely an inspirational one remains sound.