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Lawsuit Challenges Religious Discrimination in Washington Work-Study Program

College employment program bars religious employers from hiring students for on-the-job training

Like other schools in Washington state, Summit Christian Academy, a K-12 private school in Spokane, would like to hire college students as tutors under the state’s Work-Study Program. But because Summit is a religious school, it is barred by the government from doing so, even if those students would be tutoring in subjects such as math and English. That’s an obvious form of religious discrimination, which is why, today, Summit and a group of students from Whitworth University have partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest law firm, to file a federal lawsuit challenging Washington’s prohibition on so-called “sectarian” options in the Work-Study Program.

“Washington’s exclusion of sectarian options from the Work-Study Program is a clear-cut case of religious discrimination,” said Michael Bindas, a senior attorney at IJ. “The U. S. Constitution requires government to be neutral toward religion, not hostile. By denying work-study opportunities to students simply because they desire to work for a religious employer, Washington is running afoul of the First Amendment.”

Bindas continued: “For too long, state constitutional provisions like Washington’s have been used to hamper educational choice programs. This lawsuit seeks to put an end to religious discrimination at all levels of education, from kindergarten to college and beyond.”

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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 prohibits jobs with employers that the government deems overtly religious. That means that a student majoring in environmental science can work at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and a business student can work at Amazon, but a student majoring in social work cannot feed the homeless at a church’s soup kitchen.  Nor can an education major work at a religious school, like Summit.

In 2015, a student at Spokane Community College wanted to use his work-study funds to work as a tutor at Summit. But before he could start, Summit needed to apply to participate in the program. They submitted the necessary paperwork, as well as a follow-up Religious Affiliation Questionnaire. Eventually the Washington Student Achievement Council, which oversees the program, denied Summit’s application, and the student was unable to work for the school.

Just two years later, however, in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Missouri violated the Constitution when it excluded a church-run preschool, because it was religious, from a state grant program for playground resurfacing. In deciding the case, the Court ruled that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause requires that laws be “neutral and generally applicable without regard to religion.” They may not “single out the religious for disfavored treatment.”

“Just as we stress in defending educational choice programs throughout the country, government cannot dictate where a student chooses to learn or, in this case, work,” said IJ attorney Josh 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.”

Washington’s exclusion of “sectarian” options is based on the Washington Student Achievement Council’s reading of provisions in the state constitution commonly referred to as “Blaine Amendments.” These provisions were the product of an anti-Catholic movement in the 19th century led by Protestant congressman James G. Blaine. Blaine sought to amend the U.S. Constitution to preserve the Protestant nature of the era’s public schools, while barring public funding of Catholic schools. Although Blaine’s proposed amendment failed, some 37 states have included similar provisions in their own constitutions. These “Blaine Amendments” are not, as some argue, a high-minded statement about the separation of church and state, but rather vestiges of 19th-century animus that were, as a four-justice plurality of the Supreme Court has observed, “born of bigotry.”

With this case, IJ hopes to remove that Blaine-based discrimination in the work study program in Washington and beyond.

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