Michigan Legislation Flies in the Face of U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

February 25, 2004

DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling today that states could withhold scholarship money for the purpose of religious training without violating the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. A case in Michigan similar to Locke v. Davey, the case in question, prompted a package of legislation which the ACLU is opposing.

Senate Bills 625, 626, 627, 628, 629, 661 and 662 would allow students to receive taxpayer dollars for such training.  According to the ACLU, the proposed legislation is not consistent with Michigan’s Constitution and would improperly entangle government with religion.   Michigan, as well 36 other states, goes further than federal law and explicitly prohibits state funding of religious training.  

 “The Supreme Court’s decision reaffirms the wisdom of Michigan citizens who overwhelmingly rejected a voucher proposal in 2000 that would have forced taxpayers to fund religious and private schools,” said Shelli Weisberg, ACLU of Michigan Legislative Director.

“There is a distinction between studying religion and studying to become a clergy in one particular religion. Prohibiting the use of public funding for religious training cannot be equated with religious discrimination,” Weisberg added.

Writing for the majority in the decision issued today, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, "Training someone to lead a congregation is an essentially religious endeavor. Indeed, majoring in devotional theology is akin to a religious calling as well as an academic pursuit."

The dispute arose in 1999, when Joshua Davey of Washington State sought to use the scholarship towardhis studies in the pastoral ministry at Northwest College, which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God church, a Pentecostal denomination. Washington students are only permitted to use the scholarship at issue to study religion as an academic subject, such as comparative religion or the history of religion, not in the pursuit of a particular pulpit.

In testimony presented in January to the Michigan Senate, the ACLU cautioned the Legislature to wait until the Supreme Court rendered a decision on the Locke v Davey case.  In spite of the warning, the Senate passed the package of bills which are now scheduled for a hearing in the House.  If the bills are enacted, the ACLU of Michigan will seriously consider challenging the use of state funds to pursue post-secondary religious training. 

Related Issues: