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Justice Department Sides with Mormon Student Who Lost State-Funded Scholarship


The U.S. Department of Justice is backing a Mormon student who lost his state-funded, merit-based scholarship because he left West Virginia University to serve a two-year church mission.

The department’s Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief last week in U.S. District Court in Charleston on behalf of David Haws.

Haws is suing the state PROMISE Board, alleging it violated his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion. His attorney argues that by denying Haws’ request for a leave of absence, the board forced him to choose between his religion and his PROMISE scholarship.

The justice department noted that the PROMISE Board grants deferments for military and community service, and by denying a deferral for religious purposes, the board was placing a lower value on religious deferments.

Haws’ attorney, John Matthews with the West Virginia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says he was surprised by the federal government’s support.

“Obviously you don’t always see or think of the ACLU and the Bush Administration being on the same side,” he says. But “even the conservative Bush Administration” sees a “clear Constitutional violation on behalf of the Promise Board.”

An attorney for the state declined to comment on the case.

The state’s motion to dismiss Haws’ lawsuit notes that Mormon missions are encouraged, not required. Haws was “under no compulsion to choose between the tenets of his religion and continued receipt of the PROMISE scholarship,” the motion reads.

Haws returned to West Virginia earlier this month after spending two years helping improve living conditions for Hispanic workers in Western states. He has reenrolled at WVU and the university has agreed to defer his tuition at least through November while the lawsuit is pending.

Haws’ lawsuit seeks the reinstatement of the 4.0 student’s scholarship and a change in the PROMISE Board’s scholarship policy.

– Associated Press

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