WASHINGTON -- Amid an intensifying political debate over equal access to public benefits and public places for religious ideas and practices, the Supreme Court promised yesterday to decide what the Constitution will allow.
The justices voted to take on a case from the University of Virginia that has implications for public colleges and universities across the nation, and perhaps far beyond the college scene.
It involves a request by a religious campus publication for a portion of student-paid activity fees to cover its costs.
In a brief filed in the case, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a group that urged the court to decide the dispute, said its survey of colleges showed that "discrimination on our campuses against religious viewpoints is widespread."
The University of Maryland, Towson State University and the University of Delaware were among the colleges that took part in the institute's survey.
All three institutions said they would not provide funds from student fees for publications that had a "Christian perspective."
Depending on how the justices rule, the outcome could be narrow, confined to the free-speech rights of college students who are religiously oriented.
Or it could be sweeping, possibly rewriting constitutional doctrine on state aid to religion.
The Supreme Court has struggled for years to find new ways to approach the Constitution's clause that bars government from getting too close to religion.
But a majority has not yet settled on any alternative to present doctrine.
That doctrine has kept a high wall between government and religion, especially when money is involved.
Last term, five of the nine justices suggested that the time was coming for the court to reconsider its opposition to public financing of religious educational activity. The Virginia case could provide the occasion for that reappraisal.
The Center for Individual Rights, an advocacy group representing the students involved in the Virginia case, said the dispute "presents the prospect that the high court may significantly alter" its present views on government and religion.
Another group that generally opposes ties between government and religion, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also suggested that the court may use the case to redefine the law on public aid to religion.
On the specific issue in the case, Barry W. Lynn, Americans United's executive director, said: "University students have the right to evangelize, but they shouldn't pass the collection plate to the taxpayers."
The case involves the efforts of student staff members of Wide Awake, a campus magazine that comments on issues from a "Biblical Christian perspective."
The students sought the kind of subsidy that other campus publications get from the $14-per-student activity fee. The magazine asked for a subsidy of $5,862, but university officials said no.
The magazine was issued four times without university funds but has ceased publication for lack of money, according to Michael P. McDonald of the Center for Individual Rights.
The student editors and writers sued, but lost in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond in March.
A Supreme Court ruling is expected before next summer.
In another religion case yesterday, the court refused -- over Justice Clarence Thomas' lone dissent -- to decide how much protection a new federal law on religious freedom gives to individuals when they take action based on their faith.
The court turned aside an appeal by an Anchorage, Alaska, landlord who refused for religious reasons to rent properties to couples who were not married. He argued that it was a sin to live that way and that he would be contributing to that sin by renting to unwed couples.
He ran afoul of a state law that forbids discrimination in housing on the basis of marital status.
The Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the landlord had to obey that law and that the burden on him was the result of his status as a landlord, not the nature of his religious beliefs.
In his appeal, the landlord, Tom Swanner, argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1993 to shore up religious freedom, protected him from having to act against his beliefs.
While the court gave no reason for turning down the appeal, Justice Thomas argued in a five-page dissent that there is no national policy against discrimination based on marital status and thus an individual's religious freedom should take precedence over laws against such bias. He also said lower courts were divided on the meaning of the new federal law.