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State-subsidized religion

Nothing about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision forcing the University of Virginia to subsidize a religious magazine could be more perverse than the fact the school is the institution for whose establishment Thomas Jefferson chose to be remembered in his epitaph.

Last week's strange 5-4 opinion invokes freedom of speech, claiming the university has a constitutional duty to allow student activity fees to be used for printing a Christian publication. That rationale misses the true constitutional keystone of the case.

Forcing the use of fees that are mandatorily assessed on every student for the dissemination of a particular religious agenda is a dangerous violation of the separation of church and state.

In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy states, unconvincingly, that any benefit to religion in the publishing of the magazine is "incidental."

On the contrary, as Justice David Souter rightly contends in dissent, the Constitution should prohibit state funding of the magazine, Wide Awake, given the undeniably specific nature of its 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 with Jesus Christ means." Furthering that mission by putting it into print is hardly an incidental boost.

All students should be free to express whatever religious views they wish, and they even should have access to space on campus to express those views. But a university should not be compelled to pay for the expression of one religion with state money that has been collected from all students.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor seemed to recognize the precariousness of the majority's argument, describing the case in her concurrence as being "at the intersection of the principle of government neutrality and the prohibition on state funding of religious activities." Unfortunately, the court crossed to the wrong side of the road in its decision.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, was justifiably proud of his accomplishment in creating the University of Virginia. Because he understood as well as anyone that the separation of church and state is a cornerstone of our secular democracy, he would be especially distressed by this action of the court that clearly knocks some bricks out of that wall of separation.

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