Officials in Washington state have set up a program that pays part of the wages of college students who work for various employers to advance their experience in the job world as they prepare to graduate.

But the work-study program forbids “sectarian” organizations from participating.

Those would be organizations like churches and Christian schools, and now a new lawsuit charges that that action is unacceptable bigotry on the part of the state.

“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 the Institute for Justice.

“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.”

He 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.”

The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington on behalf of Summit Christian Academy and Whitworth University Young Americans for Freedom.

“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,” the IJ report said.

“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.”

The program aims to help low- or middle-income students who want to earn money during college, most often in fields related to their studies.

“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,” the IJ reported.

The case is against Michael Meotti, chief of the Washington Student Achievement Council, and Becky Thompson of the office of Student Financial Assistance.

Summit tried to hire a student a few years ago, even responding to state questions such as, “Who are the members of the board of directors, and is their selection or appointment conditioned by religious creed or commitment,” and “Is a person’s faith considered before they are approved to receive services? If yes, explain.”

The work-study proposal was rejected by the state.

But then shortly later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Missouri violated the Constitution when it excluded a church-run preschool, based on its religious affiliation, 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.”

The ruling ordered that such programs may not “single out the religious for disfavored treatment.”

Josh House, an IJ lawyer, said, “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. 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.”



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