Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind - Wikipedia

Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind
Argued November 6, 1985
Decided January 27, 1986
Full case nameWitters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind
Docket no.84-1070
Citations474 U.S. 481 (more)
106 S. Ct. 748; 88 L. Ed. 2d 846
Case history
PriorWashington Supreme Court denied Witters's petition for relief, 102 Wash. 2d 624 (1984); 689 P. 2d 53 (1984). US Supreme Court granted certiorari.
SubsequentOn remand, the Washington Supreme Court declined to require the Department to provide to Witters with vocation aid under the Free Exercise Clause, and the US Supreme Court declined certiorari.
The Establishment Clause is not violated by providing financial aid that is then conveyed by an individual to a religious organization.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr. · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Lewis F. Powell Jr. · William Rehnquist
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Case opinions
MajorityMarshall, joined by Burger, Brennan, White, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, Stevens
ConcurrencePowell, joined by Burger, Rehnquist
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind, 474 U.S. 481 (1986), is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in which the Court ruled that the Establishment Clause did not prevent the state of Washington from providing financial vocational assistance to a blind man who sought to study at a Christian college to become a pastor, missionary, or youth pastor. The Court ruled that the Establishment Clause does not prevent financial assistance from a state vocational rehabilitation program from being used for religious instruction.


Larry Witters was eligible under Washington state law to receive financial assistance to pursue vocational instruction. At the time, he was attending a private Bible college with the intent to pursue a career as a pastor, missionary, or youth minister. The Commission for the Blind denied him aid on the basis that the Washington State Constitution barred state funds from being used to assist an individual in pursuit of a career or degree in theology. The Washington Supreme Court sustained the Commission's decision but used the US Constitution as the basis for its decision.


In a 9-0 holding,[1] the Court ruled in favor of Witters. The Court reasoned that the test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman was applicable and that aid to Witters would meet the Lemon test. The Court found that there was a clear secular purpose to the law. Also, the Court ruled that the primary effect of the statute was an effect on Witters, not religion. Finally, the case was ruled to have no entanglement with religion since the decision as to where the aid money would be spent was made solely by the individual, not by any government agency so the Establishment Clause was not violated.[2]

The case was remanded back to the state court. On  remand,  after  the  United  States Supreme  Court  reversed  the  Establishment  Clause  holding,  the Washington court held the program inconsistent with one of its Blaine Amendments, a decision the United States Supreme Court declined to review.[3]


Witters was represented by Michael P. Farris. Timothy R. Malone represented the respondent.


  1. ^ https://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1985/1985_84_1070 Oyez Project
  2. ^ Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind, 474 U.S. 481 (1986).
  3. ^ "Trinity Lutheran and the Future of Educational Choice: Implications for State Blaine Amendments". Mitchell Hamline Law Review. 44 (2). 2018.

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