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Northwest passage

Some state constitutions may become unconstitutional next year.

Some state constitutions may become unconstitutional next year. The U.S. Supreme Court announced last week that it will hear an appeal next fall from Washington state about when citizens may spend government money on religious education, something many state constitutions forbid.

The case involves Joshua Davey, who as a student in 1999 won a tax-funded scholarship of $1,125 to help pay his tuition at Northwest College, an Assemblies of God school. However, the state canceled the grant when officials learned he was majoring in theology, a decision upheld by a federal court.

Surprisingly, a three-judge panel of the usually religion-hostile 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Mr. Davey's favor. The judges said the grant program is a "fiscal forum," much like a free-speech forum, and the state cannot discriminate against religious content.

Nearly 40 state constitutions prohibit government support of religion, and 15 specifically ban state spending on theology classes. In light of the high court's recent decision allowing limited use of state voucher funds at religious schools, and depending on the outcome in the Davey case, those states may find their constitutions in crisis.

Edward E. Plowman

Edward E. Plowman