Rosenberger vs. University of Virginia

School Law for Administration and Supervision: 0827.559
Brief submitted 2 December 1998

Rosenberger v. University of Virginia
United States Supreme Court
115 S. Ct. 2510 (1995)

Freedom of Speech/Freedom of Religion – viewpoint discrimination

Relief Sought:
Rosenberger was seeking to reverse the University of Virginia’s denial of funds for his group’s student-led religious publication.
Can a public university that pays printing costs to several student publications deny paying for a student-run religious publication?

The University of Virginia collects a $14 per semester activities fee from each full-time student. This money provides for a student activity fund. The student activity fund pays off-campus businesses to print publications of 15 student groups. The SAF denied a request for printing costs from students who published a Christian magazine. The SAF based its decision on its guidelines, which do not permit the funding of religious activities.

Findings of the US District Court:
Held that the denial did not constitute unconstitutional discrimination against the Christian magazine.

Findings of the US Court of Appeals:
Affirmed the US District Court. Even though UVA practiced viewpoint discrimination when it denied payment (that violates the Speech Clause), it was in order to comply with the Establishment Clause.

Findings of the US Supreme Court:
Reversed. A public university has no obligation to provide benefits or facilities to student groups. But once it chooses do so, it may not discriminate based upon the viewpoint their speech (Lamb’s Chapel). No government entity, the university here, may impose a tax/fee in order to support religious activity (Roemer v. Board of Public Works of Md.).

The Court has held that government may neutrally supply benefits to religious organizations without violating the Establishment Clause (Lamb’s Chapel). The Court found that the distribution of SAF money was a neutral supply of benefits. The dissent claimed money provided to a religious organization should be considered an unconstitutional tax for the benefit of a religious activity (Establishment Clause).

The Court was confronted with a direct conflict between the First Amendment freedom of speech and the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of a religion. While all of the Justices in the majority and dissent agreed that these types of cases require an individualized analysis, the majority’s decision appears indicative of a willingness to come closer to, if not encroach upon, the wall between church and state.

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