Church Sues to Fund 'Christ-Centered' State Scholarships

Colorado Christian University is suing the state of Colorado, charging that officials denied funds for scholarships because of the school's "Christ-centered" approach to educating its students. The Bush administration is siding with the school. Does the state have the right to refuse funds? Madeleine Brand speaks with Slate legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick about the lawsuit.


But first, in Colorado a federal lawsuit that could help clarify the line between church and state is working its way through the courts. The case involves a Christian college that was denied state funds because of its religious mission. But what makes this case more than just another skirmish in the on-going culture wars is that the Bush Administration is intervening on behalf of the school. Joining us for more on this is Dahlia Lithwick. She's legal analyst for the online magazine Slate and for us here at DAY TO DAY.

And Dahlia, tell us about this suit. It involves Colorado Christian University.


That's right, Madeleine. It involves a scholarship for low-income students in Colorado which is in conflict with a state law in Colorado that prohibits the use of state funds for quote, "Pervasively sectarian institutions." It was determined by the state that Colorado Christian University was ineligible, that it was in fact under the six-point test, a pervasively sectarian institution, and so scholarship funds can't be used. The school turned around and sued the state, claiming that this policy of keeping money away from primarily Christian colleges in this case discriminated, it violated the equal protection clause, the establishment clause, and the free exercise clause of the U.S. Constitution.

It's important to see this as one of an increasing number of cases in which what's supposed to be sort of state neutrality towards religion is construed by a religious group as state hostility toward religion. And that's the line that the courts are trying to draw.

BRAND: And I thought the Court, the Supreme Court at least, drew that line in 2004.

LITHWICK: Well, that's right. There was a case that came down two years ago where the Supreme Court heard from a Washington State scholarship program. And in that case, which was called Lock v. Davey, the Supreme Court, by a vote of seven to two, said that it is permissible for Washington State to say we will not let you use state money to fund your education in the ministry. So in that case it wasn't a pervasively Christian college. What it was was a student who wanted to take his scholarship money and use it in order to become a minister. The Supreme Court overwhelmingly said, No, that's not permissible. Why? In that case the Supreme Court said, No, this Washington State law is not animated toward hatred or hostility toward religion, it's animated by an effort to be neutral towards religion. Moreover the Court found that states have a historic and legitimate tradition of just refusing to use taxpayer dollars to fund religious vocational education, and the Court didn't have a problem with that. This case is slightly different. The university says, Hey, we're not training people to be ministers, we're training them in business majors and engineering majors. Why can't we use state funds to do that?

BRAND: So it's interesting that the Bush Administration has waded into this case. Why?

LITHWICK: Well, yeah, that's right. In December of 2005 the Bush Administration filed a Friend of the Court Brief on the side of the school. And what they argued was that the Department of Justice has quote, "An interest in eliminating religious discrimination in education." It's part of a larger trend on the part of the Bush Administration to sort of shift the interest of the President away from policing that wall between church and state and more toward the notion that that wall between church and state almost inherently discriminates between people of faith who want to somehow express their religion in public places or using public monies.

And so it's of a piece with the Bush Administration's interest, for instance, in voucher programs that would allow funding to religious education, faith-based initiatives. It's an increasing trend, I think, in the Bush Administration to say, Look, if you are going to keep people from using taxpayer dollars for religious purposes, that is in effect a type of discrimination in and of itself, and the Justice Department is going to get involved in those cases to make sure that that kind of discrimination against religion as a whole is not permitted.

BRAND: Well, Dahlia, I'm curious what it means when the Justice Department files a Friend of the Court Brief in a state case like this. Does that put pressure on the Colorado legislature to do something, to change?

LITHWICK: There actually is already a lot of pressure on the Colorado legislature to do away with this law. And one of the things that they're saying is that by doing so this case will go away. I think it's important to understand that the person who heads the commission that made this determination that this was primarily a sectarian school himself has spoken out against the law and has said that, I'm gonna abide by this law, I'll defend it in court because I understand it's the law, but I think it is discriminatory, I think it's a bad law. So it's quite clear that both in Colorado and all the states that have similar laws, there's a terrific amount of pressure to do away with the argument that funding for religious education is a necessary part of policing the separation between church and state.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Dahlia Lithwick. She covers the courts for the online magazine Slate, and for us here at DAY TO DAY.

Thank you, Dahlia.

LITHWICK: Thank you, Madeleine.

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