In 1990, a University of Virginia student named Ronald Rosenberger founded a magazine espousing Christian views. Wide Awake, he called it. Among the articles published were "Freedom and the Problem of Evil," "A Loving Home for Unwed Mothers" and "Homosexuals: Can They Change ... And Should They?"
Rosenberger and several other Christian student friends published a few issues using money they raised from churches and friends. Then, short on cash, they asked the university to give them $5,800 to keep it going. The money would be drawn from an activities fee paid by all students.
The school refused, arguing that as a state institution it could not legally pay for religious activity. To do so would violate the Constitutional ban on government establishment of religion. Wide Awake soon ceased publication.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the school erred. By refusing to fund the magazine, Virginia violated another part of the First Amendment _ the students' right to free speech, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote.
To obey the First Amendment's establishment clause, Kennedy wrote, "It was not necessary for the university to deny eligibility to student publications because of their viewpoint."
Kennedy acknowledged that it is often inappropriate for the government to make "direct money payments" to religious groups. But he said the benefit to religion is "incidental" in the case of Wide Awake.
Justice David H. Souter, writing in dissent, said, "The court today, for the first time, approves direct funding of core religious activities by an arm of the state."
The Rosenberger decision does not have much immediate impact outside the University of Virginia campus. Nobody knows how many public universities have a rule against funding religious groups, but the consensus is that not many do.
The University of South Florida, for example, has no such rule; according to student government President David Quilleon, it funds a gospel choir and Muslim student group, among other religious organizations.
Still, the court's decision in Rosenberger may have great implications in the future. Some conservative groups say the decision bolsters a cause they have advocated for years _ the use of public money to pay for private religious education.
"This is just another argument in favor of the legality of a school voucher program," said Greg Baylor, assistant director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom in Annandale, Va. The center is the legal advocacy arm of the Christian Legal Society, a group of 4,500 lawyers and law students dedicated to serving Christ in the legal profession.
Jim Henderson, senior counsel for the Rev. Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, agreed that the ruling is important. If students can be compelled to pay for religious activity at a public university, he said, why can't taxpayers be compelled to pay for the religious education of some students?
Robertson's organization would like to see the government issue vouchers that parents could use at any kind of school they like _ public, private or parochial.
Other groups say the Rosenberger decision is not as broad as the conservatives make it out to be.
"It's pretty narrowly tailored," said Rob Boston, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "I think vouchers are a separate question and will have to come up before the court in a separate case."
That is not to say that Americans United, headquartered in Washington, liked the ruling.
"This is a miserable decision," executive director Barry Lynn said. "Christians at a university have every right to evangelize through publications, but they shouldn't be allowed to pick other students' pockets to pay for it."
The pickpocket analogy probably isn't fair. But it certainly is true that Virginia students can now be forced to promote religious views they may not agree with. Virginia, like most schools, requires students to pay an activities fee, which it then divides among campus organizations.
"In the past, religion has always been required to pay its own way," said Boston, of Americans United. "That's the real significance of this ruling."
Disagreements over the separation of church and state are likely to continue for some time. Though Supreme Court justices are deeply divided over the issue, they keep taking church-state cases. As the magazine Church & State said in February, "(Recent) decisions indicate that the court can go either way in church-state disputes, depending on the facts of the controversy."
And what about the future of Wide Awake? Rosenberger told Church & State that he would revive the magazine if he won in the Supreme Court.