Witters v. State, Com'n for the Blind, 49673-1

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Washington
Citation102 Wn.2d 624,689 P.2d 53
Parties, 53 USLW 2202, 20 Ed. Law Rep. 963 Larry WITTERS, Appellant, v. The STATE of Washington, COMMISSION FOR THE BLIND, Respondent.
Docket NumberNo. 49673-1,49673-1
Decision Date04 October 1984


Bill of Rights Legal Foundation, Michael P. Farris, Olympia, for appellant.

Ken Eikenberry, Atty. Gen., David R. Minikel, Asst. Atty. Gen., Olympia, for respondent.

PEARSON, Justice.

This appeal involves the denial by the Washington State Commission for the Blind 1 (Commission) of financial vocational assistance to a person studying in preparation for a career as a pastor, missionary, or youth director. The Commission denied appellant Larry Witters' request for financial assistance on March 11, 1980, based on an interpretation of the "religion clauses" of the Washington State Constitution, article 1, section 11, and article 9, section 4.

We affirm the decision of the Commission. We hold the provision of state aid to a person studying to be a pastor, missionary, or church youth director violates the establishment clause of the first amendment to the United States Constitution. Since our state constitution requires a far stricter separation of church and state than the federal constitution ( see Weiss v. Bruno, 82 Wash.2d 199, 509 P.2d 973 (1973)), it is unnecessary to address the constitutionality of the aid under our state constitution.

Appellant Witters meets the medical and physical eligibility requirements for status as a legally blind person, qualifying him to receive vocational assistance pursuant to RCW 74.16. (Repealed, Laws of 1983, ch. 194, § 30, pp. 1057-58.)

Appellant initially requested financial assistance while pursuing a 3-year Bible diploma course of study at the Inland Empire School of The Bible in Spokane, Washington. He later changed to a 4-year program which would result in a biblical studies degree from Inland Empire School of The Bible, and a bachelor of arts degree from Whitworth College.

Appellant sought an administrative review of the Commission's decision, which resulted in a reaffirmation of the initial denial of assistance. An appeal was taken to the Spokane County Superior Court pursuant to the provisions of RCW 74.16.530(1) and the administrative procedure act, RCW 34.04. After the submission of briefs and oral argument, the trial court upheld the Commission's decision to deny financial assistance based upon an interpretation of the Washington Constitution. The trial court's findings of fact and conclusions of law and an order affirming the Commission's decision were entered on May 26, 1982. Appellant appealed that decision to Division Three of the Court of Appeals, which then certified the case to this court pursuant to RCW 2.06.030(2)(d).


Appellant seeks financial assistance for his education pursuant to RCW 74.16.181. The relevant portions of this provision read as follows:

The commission may maintain or cause to be maintained a program of services to assist visually handicapped persons to overcome vocational handicaps and to obtain the maximum degree of self-support and self-care. Services provided for under this section may be furnished to clients from other agencies of this or other states for a fee which shall not be less than the actual costs of such services. Under such program the commission may:

* * *

(3) Provide for special education and/or training in the professions, business or trades under a vocational rehabilitation plan, and if the same cannot be obtained within the state, provisions shall be made for such purposes outside of the state. Living maintenance during the period of such education and/or training within or without the state may be furnished.

The Supreme Court has developed a three-part test for determining the constitutionality of state aid under the establishment clause of the First Amendment. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion ...; finally, the statute must not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion."

Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 2111, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971). To withstand attack under the establishment clause, the challenged state action must satisfy each of the three criteria.

A. Purpose

Applying the first factor of the Lemon test to the present statute is quite easy. As stated in part in the statute itself:

The commission [for the blind] may maintain or cause to be maintained a program of services to assist visually handicapped persons to overcome vocational handicaps and to obtain the maximum degree of self-support and self-care.

RCW 74.16.181. The secular purpose requirement has become a largely perfunctory inquiry easily satisfied by any legislative recitation of purpose. As the Supreme Court recently stated in Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388, 103 S.Ct. 3062, 77 L.Ed.2d 721 (1983):

[G]overnmental assistance programs have consistently survived this [secular purpose] inquiry ... This reflects, at least in part, our reluctance to attribute unconstitutional motives to the states, particularly when a plausible secular purpose for the state's program may be discerned from the face of the statute.

Mueller, 463 U.S. at ----, 103 S.Ct. at 3066, 77 L.Ed.2d at 728. The state clearly has an interest in assisting the visually handicapped. We need only look to the above quoted statement of purpose found in RCW 74.16.181 to hold that this statute has a valid secular legislative purpose.

B. Effect

The second part of the Lemon test, that the primary effect of the state aid must neither advance nor inhibit religion, requires that we "narrow our focus from the statute as a whole to the only transaction presently before us." Hunt v. McNair, 413 U.S. 734, 742, 93 S.Ct. 2868, 2874, 37 L.Ed.2d 923 (1973). Rather than look to the face of the rehabilitation statute, which is neutral in that benefits are provided to the student irrespective of the type of school attended or the degree sought, we focus our attention on the particular aid sought by the appellant.

In Hunt, the Court offered guidance for making this "primary effect" determination.

Aid normally may be thought to have a primary effect of advancing religion when it flows to an institution in which religion is so pervasive that a substantial portion of its functions are subsumed in the religious mission or when it funds a specifically religious activity in an otherwise substantially secular setting.

(Emphasis ours.) Hunt, at 743, 93 S.Ct. at 2874. Additional guidance is found in Roemer v. Board of Pub. Works of Maryland, 426 U.S. 736, 96 S.Ct. 2337, 49 L.Ed.2d 179 (1976) (plurality opinion).

The Court has taken the view that a secular purpose and a facial neutrality may not be enough, if in fact the State is lending direct support to a religious activity. The State may not, for example, pay for what is actually a religious education, even though it purports to be paying for a secular one, and even though it makes its aid available to secular and religious institutions alike.

Roemer, at 747, 96 S.Ct. at 2345.

The provision of financial assistance by the state to enable someone to become a pastor, missionary, or church youth director clearly has the primary effect of advancing religion. Appellant is not pursuing a secular course of study with the personal objective of becoming a minister. The curriculum for his course of pastoral study includes classes in old and new testament studies and church administration. It is not the role of the state to pay for the religious education of future ministers. We hold that the principal or primary effect of the aid sought by appellant would be to advance religion, and would thus violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. C. Entanglement

The third criterion of the Lemon test is that the aid must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971), the Supreme Court set forth a three-pronged inquiry to determine the existence of excessive entanglement. The relevant factors are: (1) the character and purposes of the institutions that are benefited, (2) the nature of the aid that the state provides, and (3) the resulting relationship between the government and the religious authority. Lemon, at 615, 91 S.Ct. at 2112. Typically this inquiry involves a state legislative attempt to provide aid to all of the state's private schools. For example, Lemon involved both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania statutes which provided extensive state aid to private schools. The Rhode Island statute provided salary supplements for teachers of secular subjects in private schools. The Pennsylvania program involved the reimbursement of private schools for teachers' salaries, textbooks, and instructional materials. The case before us is much different. This case involves one person's effort to get financial assistance for his theological training. The three-pronged "entanglement" inquiry is ill-suited to this case. In addition, the administrative and trial court records do not provide an adequate factual basis to make the type of inquiry contemplated by the Supreme Court.

Since we have held that the aid sought by the appellant would violate the establishment clause because it would have the primary effect of advancing religion, it is unnecessary for us to attempt a strained analysis of the "entanglement" factor of the Lemon test.


Appellant makes two additional arguments: first, that the Commission's denial of aid violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment; and second, that the Commission's action violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

A. Free Exercise

For a violation of the free exercise clause, one must show "the coercive effect of the enactment as it operates against him in the practice of his religion." School Dist. v. Schempp, 374...

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  • Bush v. Holmes, No. 1D02-3160
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • 12 November 2004
    ...affirmed, but based its decision solely on the federal Establishment Clause. See Witters v. State Comm'n for the Blind, 102 Wash.2d 624, 689 P.2d 53, 56-57 (1984), rev'd sub nom, Witters v. Washington Dep't of Servs. for the Blind, 474 U.S. 481, 106 S.Ct. 748, 88 L.Ed.2d 846. On review, the......
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    • 16 August 2004
    ...Supreme Court affirmed, but based its decision solely on the federal Establishment Clause. See Witters v. State Comm'n for the Blind, 689 P.2d 53, 56-57 (Wash. 1984), rev'd sub nom, Witters v. Washington Dep't of Servs. for the Blind, 474 U.S. 481, 106 S. Ct. 748. On review, the United Stat......
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    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • 13 June 2002
    ...not the role of the State to pay for the religious education of future ministers." Witters v. Comm'n for the Blind, 102 Wash.2d 624, 629, 689 P.2d 53 The distinction between this case and Witters is obvious. Here, the grants are made contingent upon a student's adherence to the EOG Program'......
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