Magazine article The Christian Century

Religious Speech, Public Money

Magazine article The Christian Century

Religious Speech, Public Money

Article excerpt

SHOULD A state university use mandatory student-activity fees to subsidize an avowedly religious magazine distributed on campus? When the framers of the Constitution wrote the First Amendment ensuring free speech and barring an establishment of religion, they didn't anticipate such an issue. But 200 years later the U.S. Supreme Court has begun the delicate task of deciding whether spending public money on a religious message is appropriate. The issue has divided the nation's religious communities, and the case itself has been described as potentially one of the most important pieces of church-state litigation in years.

On March 1 the justices heard oral arguments in a case involving the short-lived Christian magazine Wide Awake, published at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1990 by Ronald Rosenberger, a student. Ironically, the University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, who was both a defender of free speech and the architect of the separation of church and state. Observers believe that the case could lead to the granting of public funds for religious activities.

Rosenberger, 25, who remains a student at the university, published only four issues of Wide Awake. It included Christian symbols on each page and headlines such as "Homosexuals: Can They Change ... and Should They?" and "The Pope on Marxism and the Free Market." The magazine's stated mission: "To challenge Christians to live, in word and deed, according to the faith they proclaim and to encourage students to consider what a personal relationship to Jesus Christ means."

When Rosenberger sought about $6,000 in student-activity money for Wide Awake, school officials denied the request, citing university guidelines barring funding of religious groups. Church-state expert Michael McConnell, a University of Chicago Law School professor and Rosenberger's representative before the Supreme Court, has argued that when University of Virginia officials turned down Rosenberger's request they discriminated against him solely on the basis of the magazine's religious speech.

McConnell also observed that during the same year that university officials denied Rosenberg's request, they agreed to petitions for student activity funds made by the Jewish Law Students Association and the Muslim Students Association. Rosenberger has said that he and other students at the school are not seeking special benefits but are "simply seeking equal access to benefits made available to everybody else."

Rosenberger sued the university, contending that his free speech and press rights had been violated and that he was the victim of discrimination based on his magazine's religious content. He lost in federal district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court held that providing money to Wide Awake would be "a direct and substantial government subsidy of religion."

When the two sides presented their oral arguments to the court, McConnell argued that the First Amendment does not prohibit all state support of religion, but only requires that a public institution resolving to underwrite religious activity must do so from a position of neutrality with respect to religion and with indifference regarding how the funds are spent. …

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