State minority health commission discontinues scholarship in court settlement

Decision part of agreement in discrimination lawsuit

The Arkansas Department of Health's facilities in Little Rock are shown in this June 2, 2022 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
The Arkansas Department of Health's facilities in Little Rock are shown in this June 2, 2022 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

A scholarship offered to minority college students in Arkansas who plan to enter the health care field is being discontinued as part of an agreement reached in federal court this week.

A lawsuit claiming the Minority Health Workforce Diversity Scholarship offered through the Arkansas Department of Health discriminates against students because of skin color was resolved Monday after the Arkansas Minority Health Commission director agreed to its termination, according to an agreement filed Monday in federal court.

The lawsuit, Do No Harm vs. Kenya L Eddings, executive director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission, alleged that the commission discriminates against students based on skin color because eligibility for the scholarship is restricted to minority students seeking to enter the health care profession. Filed last month on behalf of an unidentified student who is enrolled in a public university in Arkansas, the lawsuit said the eligibility criteria is a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

According to the complaint filed by Do No Harm -- a Virginia-based organization that bills itself as a "diverse group of physicians, healthcare professionals, students, patients, and policymakers who want to protect health care from radical, divisive, and discriminatory ideologies and policies" -- the scholarship is racially discriminatory because its criteria for inclusion and exclusion of students is based on race. The lawsuit asked for an injunction barring the selection of student recipients based on race and a declaratory judgment that the scholarship violates the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment.

The lawsuit also claimed Do No Harm has at least one student member who was harmed by the scholarship criteria because she is a non-Hispanic white "and does not meet the scholarship's racial requirement." The complaint said the student meets all the non-racial criteria for the scholarship and "is ready and able to apply to the scholarship for the next cycle if Defendant stops discriminating against white applicants."

According to the Arkansas Department of Health website, the goal of the scholarship is to "help increase diversity in the state's health care workforce," which it said could result in positive effects on the health of minority populations in the state as well as the overall quality of health care in Arkansas.

According to an agreement filed Monday in federal court, the commission will terminate the scholarship and if it elects to replace it, to do so with a race-neutral scholarship that provides no advantage or disadvantage based on the applicant's race.

Attorney General Tim Griffin said Tuesday that he made the decision not to defend the state in the lawsuit on the grounds that the scholarship does violate the Equal Protection Clause.

"It's unconstitutional," Griffin said. "The case law is abundantly clear that there are very few instances where you can treat someone differently because of race."

To meet the U.S. Supreme Court's strict scrutiny test, Griffin said, two prongs are necessary in that, "there must be a compelling interest on the part of the state and a narrowly tailored means to achieve that interest." He said neither prong was met by the scholarship criteria.

"There was not a reasonable argument to be made to defend this and all of the parties involved agreed," he said. "You can't say our compelling interest is just to have more diversity. That doesn't meet the Supreme Court's standard for a compelling interest and it's certainly not narrowly tailored. There are some laws that have met that test over the years but this is not one of them."

According to the Do No Harm website, the non-profit organization is composed of more than 4,750 members who oppose critical race theory and anti-racism, which the organization says increasingly dominates medical research and is being embedded into healthcare policies at the federal and state level.

According to the Department of Health website, the mission of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission is "to assure all minority Arkansans equitable access to [preventative] health care and to seek ways to promote health and prevent diseases and conditions that are prevalent among minority populations."