Are religious services on public campuses unlawful?
Washington — At the Kansas City campus of the University of Missouri, students may meet to sing gospel songs. But not if the songs are part of a religious service. They may sponsor a discussion of the Bible as literature, but not in a "religious sense." And it's all right to hold a debate on campus between a Darwinian and a fundamentalist theologian. However, if the theologian solicits converts or gives religious testimony, he is breaking university rules.
Vice-Chancellor Gary Widmar set those criteria to help enforce a university policy set in the early 1970s to forbid religious groups from holding worship services on campus.
Now that policy is the target of a United States Supreme Court case that will affect religious activities on stateowned colleges throughout the country.
"It is unconstitutional for us to permit them [organizations] to use our facilities for the practice of religion," says Dr. Widmar, citing the guarantee of separation of church and state.
He says he had assumed that all groups on campus were following university rules until 1977, when he heard that the student organization Cornerstone was holding worship services. The group freely admitted that its purpose was "to promote a knowledge and awareness of Jesus Christ" and that its meetings were religious. The school ordered Cornerstone off campus.
"We could be an organization; we just couldn't have any meetings on campus," says Jonathan Williams, a Cornerstone member, charging that it is "unconstitutional to single out one type of organization" and deny it use of buildings. He and 11 other members filed suit.
The students lost in trial court but won on appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We begin with the proposition that religious speech, like other speech, is protected by the First Amendment," ruled the appeals court last May. The three-judge panel added that the university could not "deny a recognized student group access to its facilities solely on the basis of the content of the group's speech."
The US Supreme Court agreed last month to review the case.
Lynn R. Buzzard, executive director of the Christian Legal Society, an Illinois organization that monitors religious freedom issues, expects the Supreme Court to settle a growing nationwide controversy when it rules on the University of Missouri dispute.
"I suppose I receive half a dozen letters per month from students reciting some kind of official resistance to religious expression," says Mr. Buzzard.
Among the complaints:
* Students at Western Washington State College have sued because religious groups must pay to use campus facilities, while other associations can use them for free.
* A California community college banned religious societies from participating in a display area or even from meeting on the school lawn.
As Buzzard sees it, the "pendulum has swung so far on the separation side" that freedom of religious expression has been left behind.
Lawyers for the University of Missouri agree that the case will have a ripple effect on other public colleges and argue that if allowed on campuses, worship services would be an "impermissible advancement of religion."
It is "doubtful" that the government would allow regular religious services at the US Capitol, Supreme Court, or Treasury building, the university attorneys point out in their brief.
While the Supreme Court has agreed to resolve one campus dispute, it also has voted to hear arguments in another area of the complex church-state issue:
Valley Forge Christian College in Pennsylvania, a Bible school run by the Assemblies of God Church, uses 77 acres of land given it by the federal government. In a suit just added to the high court docket, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State charge that the government has entangled itself with religion.
Under a policy dating back more than 30 years, the federal government has donated surplus lands and property to organizations that offer public services. Church-owned hospitals and schools have been among the recipients in the past, but Valley Forge Christian College has been given an unusually large gift. Moreover, the college places heavy emphasis on religious teaching and sends many of its students into church jobs.
In the Supreme Court case, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is seeking only the right to sue. Taxpayers' suits are well established in church-state issues, "but what if money is not involved?" says a spokesman for Americans United, who calls that issue as important as the question of whether the Valley Forge school should have received 77 acres of federal land.