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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear New Religion Separation Case

By Timothy M. Phelps

From the university founded by the father of religious freedom in the United States comes a controversy that could radically redefine that concept.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will be asked to force the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, to fund a student Christian magazine devoted to advancing that faith.

The university has refused, citing the First Amendment's prohibition of government "establishment of religion." While the university is willing to provide facilities to the magazine, direct cash support would be an impermissible entanglement of church and state of the kind abhorred by Jefferson, the university argues.

Ronald Rosenberger, who brought the suit, is a former student who lives in northern Virginia and works for a conservative organization. He founded Wide Awake magazine in 1990 and rests his case on another clause of the same amendment which guarantees the right of "free exercise" of religion, as well as on the rights of free speech and press. The magazine has not published since 1992.

The Supreme Court in recent years has begun to tilt the balance between the sometimes competing religious interests. It has moved, slowly and carefully, from guarding against government involvement in religion to emphasizing individuals' rights to freely exercise their religious beliefs.

But this case, say advocates on both sides, threatens dramatic change, because it involves direct funding of a religious enterprise rather than indirect support approved in past rulings.

Rosenberger, in an interview, said a broad ruling in his favor could lead not only to resumed publication of the magazine but also to approval for government funding of private religious schools through the school voucher concept that would allow parents the choice of using taxpayer money for their child's education at either a public or a private school.

Both sides in the case invoke Jefferson, author of Virginia's Statute of Religious Freedom, which was a precursor of the First Amendment.

Rosenberger laments that the exclusion of support for religious viewpoints from the university tilts campus discourse against religion. Funds from a $28 annual student fee support a gay and lesbian group and liberal publications that attack religion (a humor magazine once featured a cover with babies nailed to the cross, he said), but advocating religion is taboo. That, he says, is discrimination against the religious viewpoint. He also complained that the university funds Jewish and Muslim student groups.

"It's very frustrating," said Rosenberger, an evangelical Christian who is now 25. "I have to give my $28 a year to funding gay and lesbian groups and Jewish groups - everything antithetical to my beliefs. But my money cannot go to funding my own viewpoint."

But Terry Gray, a fourth-year student who is president of the Student Council which administers the money, said that the Jewish and Muslim groups (the Muslims have their own publication) are funded because they are primarily cultural, rather than religious. Wide Awake, which described itself as "a forum for Christian expression," was primarily religious and was involved in proselytizing, he said.

"If (support for) proselytizing is to be accepted as a constitutional right, it opens the doorway to all kinds of one-sided ideological views," Gray said. Financial support for the gays and lesbians and other such groups is linked to issues of equal opportunity and equality, he said.

Rosenberger's lawyers pointed in their court brief to the somewhat blunter justifications of Tanisha Sullivan, a fourth-year student who chairs the Student Council's appropriations committee.

"It raises an eyebrow, and you look at it a little more closely just because it's Christianity," she told an interviewer last fall. "Everyone is so on edge when it comes to Christianity."

The Muslim students' magazine, Sullivan explained, "is teaching the culture of Islam." That's a politically correct value in these days of multiculturalism, she said. "But people don't consider Christianity to be part of a culture" because her generation is turning away from it, she said.

Sullivan said last week that her comments were taken out of context. She said she considers herself a "Christian," has strong religious values and isn't sure how she feels about the Wide Awake issue. Her committee is simply trying to follow the university's guidelines, which prohibit funding of "an organization whose purpose is to practice a devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity," she said.