Locke v. Davey

540 U.S. 714 (2004)

Quick Summary

It was constitutional for Washington State to prevent students from applying state scholarships to religious studies against the governor of Washington, Gary Locke (defendant), and others. Joshua Davey (plaintiff) challenged this restriction after being denied scholarship funds for his pastoral ministry studies.

The main issue revolved around whether this restriction violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The United States Supreme Court concluded that it did not violate constitutional rights, emphasizing the historical distinction between secular and religious education funding.

Facts of the Case

The State of Washington initiated the Promise Scholarship Program to financially assist academically outstanding students with postsecondary education costs. A key condition, however, was that the scholarship could not be applied to degrees in devotional theology. Joshua Davey (plaintiff) qualified for the scholarship but was denied its benefits when he chose to major in pastoral ministries at a private Christian college.

Arguing that this restriction infringed upon his First Amendment rights, Davey filed a lawsuit against the governor of Washington, Gary Locke (defendant), and other state officials responsible for the program’s administration.

After the federal district court favored the state, the court of appeals sided with Davey, prompting the case’s escalation to the United States Supreme Court. The core of Davey’s argument was that the exclusion of religious education from the scholarship’s scope constituted a violation of his constitutional rights to free exercise of religion.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Joshua Davey was awarded a Promise Scholarship but denied its benefits due to his chosen field of study in devotional theology.
  2. Davey filed suit against state officials in federal district court alleging First Amendment violations.
  3. The district court ruled in favor of the state, rejecting Davey’s claims.
  4. The court of appeals reversed the district court’s decision.
  5. The case was granted certiorari by the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether Washington State’s exclusion of devotional theology majors from its Promise Scholarship Program violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Rule of Law

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from imposing laws that unduly burden an individual’s practice of religion. However, there exists a ‘play in the joints’ between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause, allowing for some state actions that are not mandated by the former nor prohibited by the latter.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court determined that Washington’s program did not show hostility towards religion but rather reflected a historical and constitutional state interest in avoiding funding for religious instruction. The Court distinguished between general educational funding and specific funding for religious careers, noting that the latter has a historical basis for exclusion from public financing.

Additionally, the Court found that the program did not compel students to forego their religious beliefs to receive public benefits. The exclusion of devotional theology from scholarship eligibility imposed only a minor burden on students and was consistent with both the state’s antiestablishment concerns and the ‘play in the joints’ recognized by prior cases.


The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals, upholding Washington State’s Promise Scholarship Program and confirming that its exclusion of devotional theology studies did not violate the Free Exercise Clause.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented, arguing that the program’s exclusion of theology degrees constituted impermissible discrimination based on religion. They contended that denying a generally available benefit solely because it would be used for religious study infringes upon free exercise rights.

Key Takeaways

  1. The ‘play in the joints’ doctrine allows for some state actions that are not required by the Establishment Clause nor prohibited by the Free Exercise Clause.
  2. Washington State’s exclusion of devotional theology from its scholarship program does not violate the Free Exercise Clause.
  3. The Court recognized a substantial state interest in not funding religious instruction that prepares students for ministry roles.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes a 'minor burden' on religious free exercise under the First Amendment, and when is it legally permissible?

A ‘minor burden’ is a limitation on religious free exercise that does not coerce individuals to violate their beliefs or deny them fundamental rights, and it’s legally permissible when it advances a significant state interest and is not excessively restrictive.

  • For example: A city ordinance requiring all buildings, including churches, to adhere to specific zoning regulations would likely be considered a minor burden, since it applies to all structures irrespective of their use and serves the state’s interest in orderly urban planning.

How does the Establishment Clause shape state funding decisions related to religious institutions?

The Establishment Clause prevents government endorsement of religion; hence, state funding decisions must avoid favoring religious institutions or activities that constitute core religious practice so as to maintain a clear separation between church and state.

  • For example: A government grant provided to repair historic buildings can be received by a church with historical significance, but restrictions would likely be placed to ensure that funds are not used for religious activities or proselytization.

In what scenarios is discrimination based on religion allowable under constitutional law?

Discrimination based on religion is allowed in scenarios where the policy in question has a secular objective, it applies evenly regardless of religion, or when it aligns with historical precedents that operate within the ‘play in the joints’ between the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses.

  • For example: A public school may require vaccinations for all students despite religious objections, as the policy serves the secular goal of public health and is applied uniformly.


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