The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in
the case of Locke v. Davey, and in doing so, seriously set
back academic freedom in this country. The case began when the
state of Washington revoked the scholarship money of Joshua Davey,
a student pursuing a degree in theology. Davey challenged the
decision in court, arguing the state violated his First Amendment
rights. The Supreme Court reversed a decision by the 9th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals and declared that states are legally
allowed to ban the study of theology for any students receiving
state scholarships. Whereas faith-based initiatives force
participants to accept religious beliefs, those studying religion
in an academic environment make a personal choice, and should be
eligible for state funds.

Laura Wong

While the court’s ruling emphasized the right of
Washington to limit support of religious study and therefore
further the separation of church and state, it devoted only a
single footnote to the plaintiff’s claims regarding equal
protection and free speech. True academic freedom allows a student
to pursue any valid academic interests. In many ways academic
freedom is a manifestation of the First Amendment, which protects
individual expression and speech. A liability no doubt exists in
supporting all forms of study through scholarships; a student could
use his scholarship money to pursue radical religious education
— an avenue of little benefit to society. Nonetheless, a
theological education is not necessarily equivalent to radicalism
or training for the seminary. Religion and the vast wealth of
theological perspectives that exist can always be studied in an
academic context.

Students should have equal rights to scholarship money,
regardless of academic interests and pursuits. If a student chooses
to study theology, as opposed to political science or linguistics,
he should not be stripped of his scholarship. In doing so, the
state is lowering theology and its students to a lower tier that is
not entitled to all the rights and benefits of other fields. By
failing to recognize this discrimination and supporting
Washington’s right to abrogate academic freedoms, the court
failed to uphold the core value of a liberal education system.

In Locke v. Davey, the Supreme Court has endorsed the
right of states to set their own limits on academic scholarship
awards, thereby condoning the right of states to curtail individual
rights. This decision has furthered the power of the state, while
denying citizens the right to unhindered academic inquiry. This
decision goes directly against the respected ideals of academic
freedom and liberal education.

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