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In Response to Federal Constitutional Lawsuit, Washington Ends Religious Discrimination in State Work Study Program

State adopts new regulations allowing placements with religious employers

In a move to end discrimination and provide expanded employment and educational opportunities to Washington’s higher-ed students, yesterday the Washington Student Achievement Council adopted new regulations that will allow students in the state’s Work Study Program to take jobs with religiously affiliated employers. The new regulations were adopted in response to a 2018 lawsuit challenging the state’s former prohibition on religious options in the Work Study Program. That lawsuit was filed by the Institute for Justice (IJ) on behalf of Summit Christian Academy, a private elementary and secondary school in Spokane, as well as the Young Americans for Freedom Club at Whitworth University.

“The new regulations are a boon for college students throughout Washington,” said IJ senior attorney Michael Bindas. “They will greatly expand employment options for work study students, especially in fields such as education, healthcare, and social services—fields in which religious employers play a large and important role. The Student Achievement Council should be commended for adopting them.”

Like work study programs in other states, Washington’s is a financial aid program that provides funding for low- and middle-income students who want to earn money during college, often working in jobs that relate to their field of study. But unlike most other states, Washington excluded jobs with employers that the government deemed overtly religious. For instance, a student majoring in environmental science could work at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and a business student could work at Amazon, but a student majoring in social work could not feed the homeless at a church’s soup kitchen. Nor could an education major work at a religious elementary or secondary school such as Summit Christian, which was rejected as a work study employer in 2015 simply because it is religious.

In fact, the “sectarian” exclusion in the Work Study Program even prevented students at religious colleges, such as Whitworth, from working for their own schools. While their counterparts at secular colleges, public and private, were perfectly free to pursue work study on campus, students at religious colleges were forced to travel off-site to take advantage of the program.

“The U.S. Constitution requires government to be neutral, not hostile, toward religion,” Bindas explained. “That means government must afford work study students the choice of whether to work for non-religious or religious employers. The government doesn’t get to make that choice for them.”

Under the new regulations, work study students will be free to pursue jobs with religious employers, so long as the work itself does not “directly involve religious worship, exercise or instruction.”

Summit Christian principal Wes Evans celebrated the new regulations. “Being able to employ Washington’s outstanding college students as tutors and aids will be a great boost to the educational experience and achievement of the pre-K through 12th-grade students who attend the state’s many religious schools. We are excited and blessed at Summit Christian Academy to now have this opportunity of partnering with these talented college students.”

Lauren Sagvold, chair of the Young Americans for Freedom Club at Whitworth, likewise praised the new regulations. “In the past, Whitworth students eligible for state work study were required to find work off campus,” Sagvold explained, “and a common challenge many students faced was with reliable transportation. By allowing the university to offer students opportunities to work on campus, these new regulations will better support students, which is what the state Work Study Program is all about.”

“Just as we stress when defending other educational choice programs throughout the country, government cannot dictate where a student chooses to learn or, in this case, work,” said IJ attorney Joshua House. “Whether it is a college student who wants to work for a religious employer or a grade school student who wants to attend a religious school, the Supreme Court has made clear that government cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.”

In light of the newly adopted work study regulations, Summit Christian and the Young Americans for Freedom Club plan to voluntarily dismiss their lawsuit.

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