Thursday, March 16, 2006

Religious Devotion to the Establishment Clause

Posted By on Thu, Mar 16, 2006 at 9:41 AM

An odd bill to be heard in a state house committee next week is HB3312, a proposal to make Tennessee lottery scholarships available to kids whose parents are temporarily working overseas. The rules for these scholarships say that recipients "must have been a Tennessee resident for one year," and carve out a military exception: "Dependent children of U.S. military, Tennessee National Guard on active duty, or Department of Defense employees, who maintain Tennessee residency while stationed out-of-state are eligible." So it makes sense to extend this to dependents of those who parents are temporarily posted overseas in non-military pursuits, yes?

Maybe so, but this bill, sponsored in the House by Tre Hargett (R-Bartlett), with a Senate version offered by Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), extends scholarship eligibility only to the dependent children of a full-time religious worker, defined in the text of the bill as "a person sent to another country by a church, religious denomination or other religious organization to spread its faith or to do social or medical work." So in other words, you can get a state scholarship if your parents go to some global hotspot to help the locals solve their spiritual problems, but not if they go help solve their medical problems (unless it's a church-sponsored gig). And if your parents take a temporary overseas assignment for a private for-profit employer? Fuhgetaboutit.

Might there be a constitutional problem looming here? If one accepts legal precedents regarding the First Amendment's Establishment Clause--that government should not favor religion over non-religion, and that a law should not have an exclusively religious intent or effect--then the answer could well be yes.

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