The right to practice one's religion without government interference does not trump a state's desire to maintain a high wall separating church and state.
In a major decision, the US Supreme Court Wednesday ruled 7 to 2 that religious liberty as guaranteed under the First Amendment does not supersede efforts by state governments to uphold a different part of the First Amendment - the separation of government and religion.
The case marks something of a reversal at the nation's highest court under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, with other recent rulings emphasizing government neutrality toward religion and the religious rather than strict separation of church and state.
Analysts say it could slow the movement toward school vouchers and complicate the White House's campaign for greater faith-based initiatives at state and local levels.
"This will make it extremely difficult to continue this voucher push, particularly in the 36 or so other states where strong state constitutional provisions exist barring state funding of ministry in any form," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The decision comes in a case involving a Washington State college student who was barred from receiving a state-funded Promise Scholarship because he chose to study to become a member of the clergy.
The court upheld the state law and the state scholarship program that mandates no public funds be used to underwrite training to join the clergy.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist said that states offering educational aid to in-state college students may restrict that aid whenever a student seeks to use the money to pursue religious studies leading to a career in the ministry. In effect, the court said, students have a First Amendment right to practice their religion, but not to use a public-funded scholarship to train themselves to become members of the clergy.
The case forced the court to confront a difficult constitutional intersection between the right to freely practice one's religion and the mandate that the government and states avoid any "establishment" of religion.
At issue in the case was whether there was any leeway between the two provisions that would permit a state to adhere to a strict view of church-state separation even when it might infringe upon someone's practice of religion. The majority found there was enough leeway.
"The state's interest in not funding the pursuit of devotional [college] degrees is substantial and the exclusion of such funding places a relatively minor burden on Promise Scholars," the chief justice wrote. "If any room exists between the two religion clauses, it must be here."
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the exclusion of certain students from the scholarship program because of their religious interests amounts to unconstitutional discrimination against religion.
"When the state makes a public benefit generally available, that benefit becomes part of the baseline against which burdens on religion are measured," Justice Scalia wrote in his dissent. "When the state withholds that benefit from some individuals solely on the basis of religion, it violates the free exercise clause no less than if it had imposed a special tax."
A majority of justices disagreed. "Far from evincing hostility toward religion ... we believe that the entirety of the Promise Scholarship Program goes a long way toward including religion in its benefits," Rehnquist wrote.
He said under the scholarship program, students are still eligible to take devotional theology courses. They simply aren't permitted to use the money to fund their education to become clergy members.
The decision stems from a challenge to Washington State's Promise Scholarship program filed by college student Joshua Davey. The scholarships of $1,125 to $1,542 were available to any low-income Washington State students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class and were enrolled in an accredited in-state college.
Mr. Davey met those criteria, but when he announced that he intended to pursue a double major in business administration and pastoral studies (in preparation to become a minister), the state withdrew the scholarship.
Davey challenged the state law and the scholarship program rules in federal court. He claimed the state discriminated against him because of religion, in violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion. A federal judge threw out the case, but a federal appeals court panel ruled 2 to 1 in Davey's favor.
In reversing that decision, the Supreme Court said that the state's impact on the practice of religion was not significant enough to trump Washington State's long history of enforcing strict church-state separation. "It does not require students to choose between their religious beliefs and receiving a government benefit," Rehnquist wrote.
In his dissent, Scalia said there is more at stake than just participation in the Washington scholarship program. "When the public's freedom of conscience is invoked to justify denial of equal treatment, benevolent motives shade into indifference and ultimately into repression," he wrote.
• Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.