Case may redraw church-state lines

By Dennis Cauchon

USA Today, February 27, 1995

Ronald Rosenberger wanted the University of Virginia to pay $ 5,900 to print his monthly Christian student magazine, called Wide Awake.

“I had dreams of starting a national network of Christian student magazines,” says the non-denominational evangelical. “I wanted to train young Christians how to do it.”

But the state university in Charlottesville, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, said it can’t give money to religious groups.

Rosenberger’s appeal has gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears arguments Wednesday in a case that could redraw the boundaries separating religion and government.

The case will test the Christian right’s new strategy to open up government institutions to religion. It frames the dispute as a free speech issue, not a request to relax the barrier between church and state.

“With the rise of political correctness and multiculturalism, Christian students find themselves behind the eight-ball,” complains Rosenberger, 25, a Great Falls, Va., native.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the religious groups have a point. “This is a hard case,” says the ACLU’s Marjorie Heins. “A real conflict exists between free speech and separation of church and state.”

At the heart of the debate:

— Free speech – The Constitution says government must treat all speech equally, be it Christian, secular or Satanic. The students say the school isn’t being “content-neutral” when it pays for some speech but not a religious magazine.

“This is viewpoint discrimination, pure and simple,” says Michael Greve, executive director of the Center for Individual Rights, which represents the students.

— Church and state – The state is supposed to stay out of religion, except to make sure individuals can worship freely.

“The Establishment Clause means at least this: No cash subsidies for religion,” says Oliver Thomas, lawyer for the National Council of Churches.

The council opposes giving students the money but worries people won’t see the principle involved.

“If you showed the facts to your mother, your mother would say, ‘Let the students have the money,’ ” Thomas says. But that would cross a “bright line: Government does not subsidize religion. Period.”

Greve calls that a phony argument, noting that the government gives police and fire protection to churches. And in 1993, the Supreme Court ruled religious groups have the same right to meet after-hours in public schools as other groups.

Even the university agrees that the students are entitled to “equal access” to school facilities, such as computers. The students’ lawyers say there’s no difference between giving computers or cash.

“One way or another, it’s a subsidy,” Greve says.

Rosenberger says the university gives money to the Moslem Students Association and the Jewish Law Students Association, so why not Christians? “We aren’t seeking special rights or privileges. We’re just seeking equal access.” The school says those groups are cultural, while Wide Awake is religious.

For free speech reasons, the ACLU supported a religious group seeking access to a public school in 1993.

But this time it sides with the university. “The bottom line (is) that there should be no direct funds to religion,” says lawyer Steve Shapiro.