Today, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America – the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization – through its Institute for Public Affairs, joined with other national Orthodox Jewish organizations in filing a “friend of the court” brief with the United States Supreme Court urging the court to guarantee that religious college students who qualify for state-funded scholarships are not disqualified on the basis of religiously discriminatory policies. The brief, filed in the case of Locke v. Davey under the aegis of the National Jewish Coalition On Law & Political Affairs, was principally authored by Washington attorney and Union board member Nathan Lewin.
The case arises from a decision by Washington State to revoke its award of a “Promise Scholarship” to Joshua Davey. Washington established the Promise program to reward achieving students and encourage their further study in-state. Davey met all of eligibility criteria (which had nothing to do with religion) and was awarded his Promise Scholarship. The scholarship was revoked when the State learned that Davey decided to attend Northwest College a (duly accredited Christian college) and pursue as one of his two majors Pastoral Studies. Upon his scholarship being revoked, Davey sued claiming that his constitutionally protected rights to the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and equal protection rights were violated. Washington State asserted that their revocation of his scholarship was required by a state constitutional ban on public funds supporting religious activity. While a federal trial court ruled for Washington, the federal appeals court ruled in favor of Davey. The U.S. Court of Appeals stated that the policy disqualifying Davey “lacked neutrality on its face” and that forcing Davey to choose between forgoing his chosen course of study or foregoing his scholarship was a clear violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which could not be ignored on the basis of a state constitutional provision.
In the friend of the court brief, the UOJCA and other Orthodox Jewish organizations sought to inform the court how, from the Jewish perspective, the study of religious text is an essential component of the free exercise of religion protected by the Constitution. The brief informs the court that study of religious teachings is a central component for observant Jews, including Jewish college students. Thus, states the brief: “The effect of the Washington State statute that disqualifies any student who is ‘pursuing a degree in theology’ from receiving a Promise Scholarship is equivalent, in a constitutional sense, to a disqualification of any student who wears a yarmulke, or any student who eats only food prescribed by religious dietary laws, or any student who observes Saturdays as the Sabbath. It removes a student who is otherwise fully qualified and eligible for personal financial assistance from the roster of eligible students exclusively because he or she takes his or her religion seriously. That form of discrimination violates the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution and cannot be justified by a purported policy of Washington State to erect a higher “Wall of Separation” between Church and State than is provided by the Establishment Clause.”