Mormon student sues after scholarship is taken away

Charleston, USA - A West Virginia University student is suing a state scholarship board, claiming his constitutional rights were violated when his scholarship was taken away because he chose religion over education.

David Isaac Haws, a 21-year-old Mormon student from Bridgeport, is the subject of a lawsuit filed in federal court July 19 by the American Civil Liberties Union. The suit claims the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and PROMISE Scholarship Board violated his First Amendment rights to freely exercise his religion.

Haws claims he was refused a deferment of his PROMISE scholarship when he chose to serve a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. According to the suit, Haws had saved $10,000 from the time he was eight years old so he could afford to go on the mission, which the church "strongly encourages" when a man turns 19.

Haws completed one year at WVU and had maintained a 4.0 grade point average when he requested a deferment, or leave of absence, of his scholarship so he could complete the mission.

His request was denied, with the board claiming religious leave falls under impermissible personal leave, "which had the potential for abuse by students who would use this type of leave for personal vacations," the suit says.

The board does grant deferments for personal and family medical leave, bereavement leave, military leave and "unforeseen leave," all granted at the board's discretion.

In August 2005, Haws appealed the decision, and was again denied. The suit says Haws was then forced to choose between his education and his religious calling.

"This was a hard decision for Mr. Haws," the suit says. "But his devotion to Jesus Christ came first, so he chose to serve his mission."

Haws, who has spent the last two years in Nevada and Northern California, will complete his mission in August 2007. In February 2007, he resubmitted his scholarship application to the PROMISE Board. He was again denied, with the board stating the same reason they had denied it before.

Attorney Jonathan L. Matthews of Forman and Huber is representing Haws. He said he found the case to be one where a man's constitutional rights were violated and then felt the need to see the case go through, because of who Haws is.

"The case is compelling, not just because of the constitutional issues, but because of the person involved," Matthews said. "This is the kind of person the PROMISE scholarship is made for. He's an excellent poster child for the PROMISE and students you want to keep in West Virginia and in West Virginia schools."

Haws seeks a declaration that the actions of the boards are unconstitutional, illegal and void. He seeks immediate reinstatement of his scholarship and all the rights and privileges he had when he completed the Spring 2005 semester. He also seeks attorney fees, court costs and other damages.

Matthews said he hopes the case will be settled soon. But if not, they are prepared to take it to the United States Supreme Court.

Haws is a 2004 graduate of Bridgeport High School, where he graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was valedictorian of his class.

Kay Goodwin, cabinet secretary for education and arts and chair of the PROMISE Scholarship Board, and Jack Toney, executive director for the PROMISE Scholarship Program are also named as defendants in the case.

Toney said the board has no comment because the matter is a legal action.