Hitting the Wall

During her first two years at Ave Maria College in Michigan, Teresa Becker received nearly $4,000 in state scholarship money and was promised $2,750 for her junior year. All that changed when she declared theology as her major. State officials wrote her saying that, according to Michigan law, "students enrolled in a course of study leading to a degree in theology, divinity, or religious education are not eligible to receive an award." Accordingly, "your award has changed from $2,750.00 to $0.00." Becker sued the state of Michigan, and last month, a federal judge issued a preliminary ruling in her favor. Judge Steeh said that Michigan had "probably" engaged in religious discrimination and ordered state officials "to put her scholarship money in escrow." Becker isn't the only one challenging these kinds of laws in court. Besides Michigan, ten other states, including New York and Washington, have similar prohibitions on the use of state scholarship money to study theology, once considered the queen of sciences. A challenge to Washington's law will be heard by the Supreme Court this upcoming year. What a travesty! Litigation shouldn't be required for students of theology to be treated the same as other students. Nobody claims that theology isn't a serious academic discipline, especially in an age when students can "study" sitcoms and even pornographic films for credit. This case is entirely about anti-religious bias. And while Becker's story may turn out to have a happy ending, the stress she's experiencing can be traced to a so-called constitutional doctrine that has no basis in the Constitution. You see, the only reason cases like Becker's are in dispute is because of a complete misunderstanding of what the founders meant by the First Amendment's "establishment" clause. The metaphor that is most often used is the "wall of separation" between church and state. In the name of maintaining this "wall," courts work overtime to erase any hint of religion from the public square. And it's in the name of separation that laws like Michigan's were passed in the first place. The problem is that the metaphor is a quotation that came from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to Baptists in Connecticut fourteen years after the Constitution was ratified. Jefferson, who had been in Paris during the drafting of the Constitution, could claim no special insight into the meaning of the establishment clause. He wasn't there. What's more, his views were no doubt colored by the recent presidential election in which many Christians opposed his candidacy. Despite this history, the Supreme Court, lower courts, and legislatures embraced the "wall of separation" metaphor and have been misapplying it ever since. One of the results is the kind of laws that almost cost Teresa Becker her scholarship. The time has come to end this shocking anti-religious bias. But we have a lot of educating to do. We should be speaking out in groups. Churches should be talking about this issue. We should be educating our neighbors. After all, in a culture where you can watch cartoons for credit, you ought not to have to make a federal case to get money to study something a great deal more enduring. For further reading and information: Adam Liptak, "Theology major sues state for yanking scholarship," New York Times, 10 August 2003. (Reprinted in the News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington.) Mark Hornbeck, "Scholarship denial sparks legal fight," Detroit News, 6 August 2003. Ted Olsen, "Weblog: Should Religion Majors Be Refused State Financial Aid?" Christianity Today, 27 January 2003. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030710, "Wall of Separation." Candi Cushman, "Turning the Tide," Boundless, 24 July 2003. (See also "Hey, Is That a Bible Study in Your Room?") Visit the website for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. David S. Dockery, Ph.D., "Integrating Faith and Learning in Higher Education," BreakPoint Online, 20 September 2000. The BREAKPOINT WORLDVIEW SURVIVAL KIT FOR STUDENTS is filled with books, brochures, and other materials to help your high school or college student grapple with cultural issues from a biblical worldview -- all packaged in a useful canvas satchel with a water bottle from the Wilberforce Forum. It now also includes a CD of Chuck Colson's speech at Brown University's commencement last spring, "Can the Ivy League Teach Ethics?" See the August 14, 2002, "Worldview for Parents" page, which addresses the question, "My school is so anti-Christian -- what can I do about it?" BreakPoint's TEACHER-REACHER PACKET makes it easy for you to have a yearlong outreach to your child's teacher, who will appreciate your concern and support. It contains a set of three cards with educational messages about the holidays, two note cards, a parent-teacher conference checklist to improve communication, and a prayer sheet for recording school-related prayer requests. Visit the Young America's Foundation and Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute websites for information and resources for supporting conservative ideas on campus. See Comedy & Tragedy, a publication from Young America's Foundation highlighting some of the more outrageous undergraduate studies around the country. Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, The Shadow University (Perennial, 1999). Want to strengthen your biblical worldview understanding of today's culture? Sign up for the Wilberforce Forum's online course, the Certificate Program in Christian Worldview Studies.


Chuck Colson


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