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High Court To Rule on Funding for Religious Student Magazine

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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to decide whether a state university properly denied funding to a student magazine because it has a religious viewpoint.

The appeal by a Christian students' group at the University of Virginia provides the Court with another opportunity to reconcile two divergent precedents: one that says government cannot directly aid religious activity, and another that says religious expression cannot be subjected to discrimination on the basis of viewpoint.

The student group, in its petition in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Case No. 94-329), is urging the Court to clarify that the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion "does not provide a legitimate ... justification for denial of what would otherwise be the First Amendment rights of private speakers to be free of viewpoint discrimination."

The group noted that last term, in a concurring opinion in a church-state case, Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor called for the Court to reconsider decisions that result in discrimination against "religion, religious ideas, religious people, or religious schools," and return the law to "government impartiality, not animosity, toward religion."

The Virginia case centers around a magazine called Wide Awake, which was started four years ago by a student group at the university in Charlottesville to provide a Christian view on local and national issues. Early issues included articles about racism, homosexuality, and the importance of foreign missions.

The University of Virginia provides funding from student-activity fees to more than 100 student organizations, including 15 publications, but it bars funding for religious activities.

Printing Funds Sought

Despite that rule, however, the student council has provided money to the Muslim Students Association and a Jewish law students' group on the grounds that the groups engaged in cultural, rather than religious, activities.

In 1991, the editor of Wide Awake, Ronald W. Rosenberger, sought $5,862 to cover publishing costs. The student council denied the request, citing the university's prohibition against financing religious activity.

The student group filed a federal lawsuit, but lost in both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The appeals-court panel ruled that the university's actions did discriminate against the student group on the basis of the content of its speech. But the court held that the discrimination was justified to avoid a violation of the establishment clause.

Because of Wide Awake's Christian philosophy, the appellate court said, "for the university to subsidize its publication would, we believe, send an unmistakably clear signal that the University of Virginia supports Christian values."

The student group's appeal to the Supreme Court took issue with that idea. Since the university gives money to more than 100 organizations supporting various interests and ideologies, including both Muslim and Jewish groups, it "conveys only the 'message' that it supports a robust exchange of ideas," the brief argues.

The university argues in its brief that this case differs from cases in which the High Court has upheld religious groups' equal access to government facilities.

"When direct monetary subsidization is involved, there is an establishment-clause violation because the benefit to religion is not neutral," the university says.

The case will be argued early next year, with a decision expected by the end of June.

Appeals Denied

Also last week, the High Court:

  • Let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that an Iowa teacher was entitled to a hearing before being suspended for four days without pay for striking a student.

    The Justices rejected an appeal by the Des Moines school district, which had argued that suspended employees are not entitled to a full-blown due-process hearing.

    The case was Des Moines Independent Community School District v. Winegar (No. 94-450).

  • Rejected an appeal by the Chicago school board in a multimillion-dollar dispute with one of its insurers over compensation for asbestos-abatement expenditures.

    The Court let stand rulings by two lower courts that the district was contractually bound to file claims for its losses within one year. The case was Chicago Board of Education v. Affiliated FM Insurance Company (No. 94-436).

  • Turned down an appeal by the California Department of Education and the Union school district in a dispute over the limits of parents' right to be reimbursed for so-called "unilateral" private education placements of children with disabilities.

    In Union School District v. Smith (No. 94-492), the state and the district argued that two lower courts went too far in ordering the district to reimburse a family for housing, a cost they incurred so that their disabled son could attend a day program at a private school 400 miles from their home. The family switched schools after a dispute with officials over their son's educational program.

  • Heard arguments in a case that could determine whether employers sued for illegal job discrimination can use evidence gathered during legal proceedings about an employee's other misconduct to limit or preclude liability for their own discriminatory actions.

    The case of McKennon v. Nashville Banner Publishing Company (No. 93-1543) is being watched closely by labor, civil-rights, and business groups.

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