Washington — Student religious groups have a right to use state college and university campuses, just as do other student associations, says the US Supreme Court. In a major freedom of religion decision Dec. 8, the high court ruled 8 to 1 that the University of Missouri at Kansas City violated constitutional rights by forbidding students to use school facilities for religious worship or teaching. University rules permitted students to meet for other purposes on campus, but worship services were expressly forbidden.
''In this case the University claims a compelling interest in maintaining strict separation of church and state,'' wrote Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. for the majority. However, he found that a university can give ''equal access'' to all groups, including religious ones, without violating the division between church and state.
The court is ''unpersuaded that the primary effect of the public forum, open to all forms of discourse, would be to advance religion,'' said Justice Powell. He softened the decision somewhat by adding that the case ''in no way undermines the capacity of the University to establish reasonable time, place, and manner'' for religious meetings.
Calling the ruling ''narrow,'' Powell said that it holds that when a public college opens its campus to student groups generally, it cannot then exclude some groups based on religious content of their speech.
The ruling is the first of several important freedom of religious expression decisions expected from the high court this term. And it is one of the biggest victories yet for a growing Christian legal rights movement.
''I think it's a watershed decision on student rights,'' says Thomas S. Brandon, general counsel of the Christian Legal Society of Oak Park, Ill., a group that urged the court to rule against the University of Missouri.
''We run across many cases where universities will not allow students to meet or use facilities or be involved with evangelism (on campus),'' he said, responding in a telephone conversation to the ruling. ''And yet they'll let anybody else meet, whether it's a gay group or a political action group and even a communist group.''
Dissenting from the ruling, Justice Byron R. White held the state was justified in forcing student groups to meet off campus in order to avoid claims that it is supporting religion.