LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A conservative group has accused the state of religious discrimination in a lawsuit objecting to a ban on state scholarship funds for students seeking degrees in religious studies.
The federal suit was filed Dec. 6 in U.S. District Court in Lexington by the American Center for Law and Justice, an organization founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. It was filed on behalf of Michael Woods Nash, a 21-year-old junior at Cumberland College in Williamsburg.
Nash was awarded $2,900 under the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship program in his freshman and sophomore years, the suit said.
The lottery-funded KEES scholarships go to Kentucky high school students as a reward for good grades and college-board scores.
In October, when Nash declared philosophy-religion as his major, the private college notified him that the scholarship funding would be cut off starting next semester, the suit said.
State regulations for the KEES program prevent the state from awarding the scholarships to students seeking degrees in theology, divinity or religious education, the suit said.
Nash's choice of a major will cost him more than $2,000 in scholarship money that he otherwise would have received for the second semester of his junior year and his senior year, the suit said.
Francis J. Manion, senior counsel for the ACLJ, said the state is "systematically discriminating" by denying the scholarship funds to students wanting to obtain degrees in religious studies.
"If a student meets the residency and academic requirements needed to receive scholarship funds, those funds cannot be withheld because a student decides to study religion," Manion said in a statement. "Such a policy is not only unfair, it is unconstitutional as well."
The ACLJ, based in Virginia Beach, Va., claims the policy violates Nash's freedom of religion and speech and equal-protection rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The suit asks a federal judge to strike down the policy prohibiting KEES funding to students seeking degrees in religion.
Defendants in the suit are Gov. Paul Patton and two officials in the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority, which administers the KEES program. The other defendants are Joe McCormick, the authority's executive director, and Linda Renschler, director of the Division of Student and Administrative Services.
Rick Casey, general counsel for the authority, said on Dec. 6 that he could not comment specifically because he had not yet seen the suit.
Casey said the restrictions on the use of scholarship funds are based on a section of the state Constitution that limits expenditure of public funds to aid any sectarian purpose.