‘Chronicle’ Article Discusses Disputed Implications of ‘Rosenberger’ Decision

July 6, 2007

An article by Thomas Bartlett in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education (warning: password-protected site) focuses on the 1991 Supreme Court decision in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, “a landmark ruling that guaranteed equal treatment for campus religious groups.”

As the article states, however,

More than a decade later, some public universities still have policies that appear to run counter to the spirit and letter of Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. In fact, a review of more than a dozen student handbooks across the country reveals a confusing and contradictory mishmash. Some policies explicitly welcome religious groups to apply for student-activity funds and inveigh against any “viewpoint discrimination.” Others prohibit religious groups from receiving any money. Still others are so vague that it’s unclear who is and is not eligible for support.

Bartlett explains that divided reactions to Rosenberger stem from varying interpretations of the decision. The Court found in Rosenberger that an evangelical student newspaper at UVA was entitled to an equal share of university funding. FIRE and groups like the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) have argued that the Court’s decision mandates that religious expression should receive the same protections and benefits that non-religious expression enjoys on college campuses. For others, the Court’s emphasis on student publications in Rosenberger is seen “as referring only to publications, thus allowing public universities to refuse funds for, say, a student-led Bible study.” As solicitor general of Virginia William Thro told Bartlett, “Whether you can simply refuse to fund a religious club in terms of their activities is an open question.”

But administrators are more often than not unsuccessful in defending their narrower reading of Rosenberger, as FIRE and the ADF have achieved equal treatment for religious student groups in case after case, both in and out of court.