DENVER — A federal appeals court has said Colorado may not deny scholarships for students who want to attend an evangelical Christian university or a Buddhist school in that state.
The ruling is one of a string of federal and state court decisions in recent years that have reduced states’ ability to deny sectarian colleges access to government-funded programs available to more secularized schools.
The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 23 that Colorado officials overstepped their authority when declaring that two institutions of higher learning in the state did not qualify for a state scholarship program because they were “pervasively sectarian.”
A unanimous three-judge panel, in an opinion written by Judge Michael McConnell, declared the state’s policy unconstitutional. Officials had denied scholarships to students at Colorado Christian University and Buddhist Naropa University, but offered them to students at secular, Methodist and Catholic-affiliated ones.
“By giving scholarship money to students who attend sectarian — but not ‘pervasively’ sectarian — universities, Colorado necessarily and explicitly discriminates among religious institutions, extending scholarship to students at some religious institutions, but not to those deemed too thoroughly ‘sectarian’ by government officials,” McConnell wrote.
The case pitted the First Amendment’s two religion clauses against each other. The establishment clause prevents the state from establishing or supporting a religion. The free-exercise clause, meanwhile, prevents the state from unnecessarily inhibiting an individual’s or group’s religious practice.
Officials at Colorado Christian sued the state, claiming that denying scholarships to the school because it requires its faculty to affirm a confession of faith and forces its students to attend chapel services unfairly targeted its evangelical nature.
McConnell seemed to agree.
“(T)he Colorado exclusion expressly discriminates among religions … and it does so on the basis of criteria that entail intrusive governmental judgments regarding matters of religious belief and practice,” he wrote.
Colorado officials had relied on the Supreme Court’s Locke v. Davey decision. It said the State of Washington could deny a student at a Christian college a government-funded scholarship because he was majoring in theology and planned to be a pastor.
In Locke, the justices said the Washington student’s right to the free exercise of religion had to be balanced with the state’s interest in not subsidizing the training of clergy members.
But in the Colorado case, McConnell and his colleagues read the Lockedecision narrowly.
They noted one difference between the cases is that Washington’s denial of the funds did not discriminate between religions, but between fields of study.
Several conservative Christian organizations supported Colorado Christian University in friend-of-the-court briefs, while several groups that support strong church-state separation filed briefs in favor of the state’s position.
In a July 24 post on the Americans United for Separation of Church and State blog, Sandhya Bathija said McConnell’s decision would end up supporting religious discrimination rather than alleviating it.
“The real discrimination here is that practiced by ‘pervasively sectarian’ universities such as Colorado Christian University,” Bathija wrote.
“Not everyone in the state can attend the school, since it requires a commitment to a particular religious belief. Why should the state’s taxpayers support a school that discriminates against students who do not want to attend chapel weekly (at CCU, students who miss chapel must pay a fine) and who refuse to sign statements promising to live as
The decision is one of several by federal and state courts in recent years that have expanded sectarian colleges’ ability to participate in aid programs on an equal basis with non-sectarian schools. Since 2004, the 4th Circuit, the 6th Circuit and the California Supreme Court have all ruled unconstitutional states’ attempts to exclude sectarian colleges from government-backed bond programs.
The case is Colorado Christian University v. Weaver, No. 07-1247.