March 17, 2015

CONTACT: Lindsay Kee, communications director, ACLU of Tennessee, (615) 320-7142

NASHVILLE — In a victory for religious freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has secured a Washington County high school student’s right to attend a religious worship service without jeopardizing his eligibility for the Tennessee Promise scholarship program. The student had been told that missing a mandatory Tennessee Promise meeting to help lead a church service would disqualify him from the scholarship program.

“The First Amendment prohibits government from placing a substantial burden on a person’s sincerely-held religious beliefs or practices, which was exactly what the Tennessee Promise program was doing,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director. “We commend the state for realizing that students should not have to choose between their faith and state scholarships.”

The Tennessee Promise scholarship program provides Tennessee students two years of tuition-free education at a community college or technical school in Tennessee. The Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) administers the Tennessee Promise scholarship. TSAC rules require that students attend two meetings to maintain eligibility for the scholarship.

In this instance, one of the mandatory meetings was scheduled for a Wednesday evening, conflicting with worship services at the student’s church, where he is a service leader. Make-up meetings for excused absences such as school “athletic event” or “choir concert” were already scheduled. However, when the family requested that their son be allowed to attend one of the already-scheduled make-up sessions or a meeting at another school, tnAchieves, the partnering organization coordinating the meeting, told the family that church was not an acceptable excuse for missing the meeting.

ACLU-TN sent a letter to TSAC asserting that the state is constitutionally prohibited from burdening a student’s free exercise of religion and requesting that the student’s absence be excused, as well as that of any other student who presents evidence of a religious conflict with their assigned meeting date. TSAC agreed and ACLU-TN has requested that the rules governing excused absences be permanently amended to include constitutionally-protected activity.

“The ACLU has long defended religious freedom in Tennessee and supports individuals’ right to attend church and practice their faith. We are satisfied that the state realizes that it cannot penalize students for practicing their religion—particularly when accommodations can and were being made for other students participating in school activities such as basketball games or choir concerts,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “We look forward to working with the state to change the current policy so that all students applying for Tennessee Promise scholarships in the future can exercise their religious freedom without issue.”

ACLU-TN’s initial letter to the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation can be found here.

ACLU-TN’s follow-up letter to the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation can be found here