In two long-awaited cases about religious freedom, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Ku Klux Klan had a right to erect a cross outside the state Capitol in Ohio and that the University of Virginia should have paid to publish a Christian student magazine.
In neither case, the court said, was government promoting religion. And in both cases, government already had accommodated non-religious groups and publications, so it should do the same for those with a religious message.
The rulings "amount to the wall of separation between church and state taking two direct mortar shots," said Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
But others saw victory.
"What it means is that religious people can, with confidence, speak and distribute literature and set up displays in the same public areas that people with secular messages can go," said Nicole Kerr, executive director of the Liberty Counsel in Orlando, a group of lawyers who work on religious rights cases.
"They have no need to fear government oppression."
The Supreme Court, in opinions written with a hint of exasperation, said it had been trying for years to make this principle clear. A few years ago, the court ruled that any school offering its facilities to secular groups had to offer them to religious groups as well. The same thinking applies here, the majorities said.
But the court splintered on both rulings.
Seven of the nine justices agreed the KKK's cross should be allowed on Capitol Square in Columbus, Ohio, but for different reasons. Four, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, said government must allow religious speech in public forums, as long as government doesn't initiate it.
"We have consistently held that it is no violation for government to enact neutral policies that happen to benefit religion," Scalia wrote.
Three others, led by Justice David Souter, said the cross would be okay if it had a sign saying government was not endorsing the religion.
Justice Clarence Thomas, the only black member of the court, wrote a separate opinion saying he didn't believe for a minute that the KKK was using the cross to celebrate Christmas. "The Klan simply has appropriated one of the most sacred of religious symbols as a symbol of hate," he wrote. But even if the Klan's message was political rather than religious, he concluded, free speech should be allowed in an established public forum like Ohio's Capitol Square.
The 10-foot cross stood for one day before vandals tore it down.
The Virginia case more deeply divided the court.
The university in Charlottesville, which the court noted was one of Thomas Jefferson's proudest achievements, refused to pay the printing costs of a student magazine called Wide Awake: A Christian Perspective at the University of Virginia. Editor Ronald Rosenberger said his religious rights were violated, especially because the school funneled student activity fees to more than 100 other groups, including Jewish and Muslim publications.
Five justices agreed with Rosenberger. Four dissenters were horrified.
"The court today, for the first time, approves direct funding of core religious activities by an arm of the state," wrote Souter, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
But in this case, the majority argued, the university would have paid the printer, not a religious group, and benefit to religion would be "incidental."
"They certainly leave the door wide open for things like (school) vouchers and other forms of state support for religion," said Elliot Mincberg, executive vice president and legal director of People for the American Way. "But it's very important to point out that it only leaves the door open. It doesn't walk through the door."
The court's decisions come at a time when the religious right is complaining that government, including the high court, is hostile to religion. At a congressional field hearing in Tampa last week, children told of getting in trouble at school for reading their Bibles or drawing pictures of Jesus.
Congress is considering a constitutional amendment that would encourage organized school prayer and public displays of religion. It also would allow direct payments from government to religious organizations, such as schools.
But religious freedom is not threatened, said Mincberg.
"These decisions further show," he said, "there's no reason to play political football with the First Amendment out of a perception there's hostility going around."
_ Information from Reuter and Scripps Howard News Service was used in this story.