HSLDA President Wins Witters
By Beth Bowen
HSLDA President Michael Farris won a major religious freedom case at the U.S. Supreme Court on January 27. The Court ruled unanimously that state aid paid to a blind man to attend Bible college does not violate the separation of church and state.
Farris, acting as general legal counsel for Concerned Women for America, represented Larry Witters, a 28-year-old blind student from Washington State. Witters qualified for a special state program that provides education aid to the visually impaired. Witters was attending Inland Empire School of the Bible, a private Christian college in Spokane, Washington, and studying to become a pastor, missionary, or youth director.
The commission denied Witters aid and relied on a provision of the state constitution which forbids the use of public funds to assist an individual in the pursuit of a career or degree in theology.
The Washington Supreme Court also upheld the decision, but based its ruling on the Establishment Clause of the Federal Constitution. The court found that giving aid to Witters would have “the primary effect of advancing religion.”
However, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Washington Supreme Court, deciding in favor of Witters. Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the U.S. Supreme Court, “. . . the mere circumstance that Witters has chosen to use neutrally available state aid to help pay for his religious education (doesn’t) confer any message of state endorsement of religion.”
“It is well settled that the Establishment Clause is not violated every time money previously in the possession of the state is conveyed to a religious institution,” Justice Marshall wrote in overturning the state decision. “For example, a state may issue a paycheck to one of its employees, who may then donate all or part of that paycheck to a religious institution all without constitutional barrier, and the state may do so even knowing that the employee so intends to dispose of his salary.”
Farris said he and his client were “counting our blessings.” “The ruling really does something very significant in a preventive way,&rdquop; he said. “There was a developing theory that not only do we separate the church from the state in this country, but we separate the religious individual. That theory has been dealt a death blow.”
Witters does not yet receive his state aid, because the Supreme Court sent the case back to the state courts to resolve some remaining issues. Farris hopes the state courts will respond more sympathetically to Witters’ claims the second time around.
The Reagan administration sided with Witters and cautioned that a ruling against him could affect the administration of the GI Bill and federal student-aid grants, available to students attending religious institutions. Education Department Secretary William J. Bennett supported the Court’s decision, noting that the justices recognized that the Constitution is not violated when students choose to use their state aid to pay for and attend a private religious institution.
Michael Farris has handled several other religious liberty cases involving education for Concerned Women for America. For example, Farris filed suit for damages against Nebraska State Judge Ronald Reagan for imprisoning seven fathers for 93 days who had their children enrolled in the unregistered and non-accredited Faith Baptist school. Judge Reagan held the men for contempt of court because they did not answer the judge’s questions about the school and refused to testify against themselves and their families.
Farris and CWA are also handling another case from the Nebraska church school controversy, involving the pastors who were dragged out of the Faith Baptist Church by deputy sheriffs in October 1982. In June 1984, a federal appeals court declared the raid unconstitutional, and ordered the federal district judge to hold a trial on further issues.
Between his work at Concerned Women for America and HSLDA, Michael Farris stands as one of the significant Christian constitutional lawyers in the nation.