Witters v. Washington Department OF Services FOR THE Blind 474 U.S. 481 (1986)

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Suffering from a progressive eye condition, Witters sought state financial assistance to attend a Bible college to prepare himself for a career as a minister. Washington State generally provided aid to visually handicapped persons seeking education or training for careers so they could be self-supporting. Nevertheless, the state denied Witters aid, citing the Washington State constitution's prohibition of public aid to religion. The state supreme court upheld the denial, but on establishment clause grounds, holding that aid to Witters would advance religion as its primary effect and thus violate the second prong of the lemon test. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed.

Writing the opinion of the Court, Justice thurgood marshall said it would be inappropriate to view the funds ultimately flowing to the Bible college in this case as the result of state action to aid religion. Marshall noted that the financial assistance "is paid directly to the student, who transmits it to the educational institution of his or her choice. Any aid provided under Washington's program that ultimately flows to religious institutions does so only as a result of the genuinely independent and private choices of aid recipients." Marshall further emphasized that the program "is in no way skewed toward religion" and "creates no financial incentive for students to undertake sectarian education." Finally, Marshall stressed that nothing indicated any significant proportion of state money provided under the program would flow to religious institutions if Witters's claim was granted.

That last reason was not dispositive for a majority of Justices, five of whom joined concurring opinions that noted the applicability of mueller v. allen (1983) to Witters. In Mueller the Court had upheld general tax deductions for certain school expenses, despite the fact that over ninety percent of these tax benefits went to those who sent their children to religious schools.

John G. West, Jr.

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Witters v. Washington Department OF Services FOR THE Blind 474 U.S. 481 (1986)

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