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Supreme Court votes to decide church-state case from Va.


WASHINGTON -- Reacting to widespread complaints from Christian legal advocates, the Supreme Court said yesterday that it will reconsider a lower court ruling that bars a state university from subsidizing a student magazine because it espouses an "avowedly Christian" perspective.

In recent years, Christian legal groups have complained that the high court's insistence on a strict separation of church and state sometimes translates into discrimination against mainstream religious groups.

For example, some school and state college officials have said that their institutions may subsidize student groups which promote feminism, environmentalism, gay rights or a variety of other causes but they may not subsidize student groups that promote religion.

This approach "strips religious speakers of their constitutional protection" to freedom of speech and "condones discrimination against religion," according to lawyers for a Christian students' group at the University of Virginia.

Their complaints now have won a hearing at the high court.

Last year, the court intervened when a school district refused to rent its auditorium to a group that espoused Christian values, even though it allowed other groups to use the facility. In overturning that discriminatory policy, the justices said that public officials must treat religious groups like all others when their doors are opened to outsiders.

The University of Virginia case gives the court a chance to decide whether the same rule applies when government subsidies are disbursed.

During the 1990-91 school year, 118 student groups on the Charlottesville campus received subsidies from a mandatory student fee, including 15 groups that publish magazines or newspapers.

But a magazine called Wide Awake: A Christian Perspective at the University of Virginia was denied $5,862 in publishing fees by the student council because it was deemed a "religious activity."

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