Thursday, July 24, 2008

10th Circuit: Exclusion of Pervasively Sectarian Schools From Scholarships Is Invalid

In an important decision interpreting the scope of the Supreme Court's 2004 Locke v. Davey decision, yesterday the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals held that Colorado acted unconstitutionally in excluding from its college scholarship program students who attend "pervasively sectarian" institutions. In Colorado Christian University v. Weaver, (10th Cir., July 23, 2008), the court found that the exclusion "expressly discriminates among religions without constitutional justification, and its criteria for doing so involve unconstitutionally intrusive scrutiny of religious belief and practice."

The court analyzed extensively Colorado's statutory criteria for determining that an institution is not "pervasively sectarian". Some of the criteria focus on whether students, faculty, trustees or funding sources are predominately of "one particular religion". The court observed that this requires government officials to decide which groups of believers count as a single religion. For example, do all Christians count as a single religious group?

The court held that "if the State wishes to choose among otherwise eligible institutions, it must employ neutral, objective criteria rather than criteria that involve the evaluation of contested religious questions and practices." The court said it did not need, in this case, to decide the exact level of scrutiny that should be applied when states discriminate in funding between denominations because in this case "the State scarcely has any justification at all." Yesterday's Examiner reported on the decision. [Thanks to Steve Sheinberg for the lead.]

UPDATE: On Aug. 1, Colorado's Department of Higher Education announced that the state will not appeal the 10th Circuit's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. [Thanks to How Appealing for the lead.]