The Supreme Court issued a ruling today that caught me very much by surprise. The case is Locke v Davey, and it involved a Washington state program that gives scholarships to students based on academic excellence. Joshua Davey was awarded a Promise Scholarship, but when the state found out he was planning to attend divinity school they cancelled it, under a state law that prevents public money from being spent on religious education. 36 other states have similar laws. In a 7-2 ruling today, the SCOTUS upheld that Washington law and ruled that it did not violate Davey’s rights.
The most surprising thing about this decision, in my view and I assume in the views of other court-watchers, is that the decision was written by Chief Justice Rehnquist. He is typically on the other side of such issues. In fact, 2 years ago Rehnquist authored the 5-4 decision in Zelman v Simmons-Harris upholding the Ohio state voucher program that was challenged on the grounds that it resulted in public tax money going to religious private schools. In that decision, Rehnquist wrote,
The instant program is one of true private choice, consistent with the Mueller line of cases, and thus constitutional. It is neutral in all respects towards religion, and is part of Ohio’s general and multifaceted undertaking to provide educational opportunities to children in a failed school district. It confers educational assistance directly to a broad class of individuals defined without reference to religion and permits participation of all district schools–religious or nonreligious–and adjacent public schools.
Without having read the current decision, I’m at a bit of a loss to understand why Rehnquist ruled so differently here. This case has far reaching implications for the president’s faith-based initiative program and for school voucher programs nationwide, but on the surface it doesn’t seem to clear things up much. Stay tuned.