In a move that could set a precedent for public colleges and universities across the country, the University of Virginia has begun to allow students to request a refund of activities fees used to subsidize campus religious and political groups.
The action comes in response to a Supreme Court decision in June requiring the state-funded university to use a portion of the student-activity fund to subsidize Wide Awake, an evangelical Christian student magazine.
Jewish groups, who decried the court decision as a blow to the principle of church-state separation, are welcoming the university’s new policy as a good- faith effort to reconcile the ruling with the objections of students who do not wish to subsidize religious groups that propagate views with which they disagree.
“I think it reflects sensitivity to the separation principle,” Sam Rabinove, legal director for the American Jewish Committee, said of the university’s action. “Nobody should have to pay money, whether it’s a tax or a compulsory student-activity fee, to fund religious activity.”
In Rosenberger vs. the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, the court ruled 5-4 on free speech grounds that the university could not constitutionally deny funding to a student-run religious magazine while providing funding to other student groups and publications.
The court rejected the contention – advanced by AJCommittee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and other groups – that the case involved state funding for religious advocacy, which is prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Now, is an attempt to ward off potential lawsuits, the university founded by Thomas Jefferson has set up new guidelines that will allow students to claim a refund amounting to 25 percent of their $28 annual student-activity fee – a number the university arrived at because it said one-fourth of the student organizations are related to speech or publications. To obtain the refund, students must complete a form identifying speech groups with which they disagree.
“There is no rush to seek refunds,” said Michael Sampson, editor in chief of the Cavalier Daily, the university’s student newspaper. But, he added, “in the long run it is a necessary decision that will profit the university and the students.”
In her concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor opened the door to partial refunds for students who object to the use of their fees in subsidizing a religious message with which they disagree.
“A fee of this sort appears conducive to granting individual students proportional refunds,” she wrote.
The university’s action, which comes as Congress is weighing a constitutional amendment that would give religion the same protections afforded to all other speech, attempts to “make the best of a bad situation,” said Marc Stern, co- director of the legal department of AJCongress. The new policy, he said, provides an out for students who do not want their fees to “support someone else’s church.”
Stern cautioned, however, that the move could create divisiveness on college campuses “as people have campaigns and counter campaigns urging people to withhold funds from various organizations.”
Steve Freeman, director of the legal affairs department for ADL, cautiously welcomed the university’s decision to grant refunds. But he warned that as it adheres to the Supreme Court’s decision, the university must “walk a very fine line” through the “gray area where the court was clearly split.”
On the one hand, the university must comply with the mandate to provide funding for religious publications; at the same time, it must steer clear of endorsing or favoring a particular religious message, he said.
Officials at public colleges and universities across the country, faced with similar dilemmas over student-activity funding, have been watching the University of Virginia case closely.
It remains unclear whether they will choose to follow suit and allow students to opt for similar refunds of their activity fees.
“It would be a total administrative nightmare for a university to calculate all these responses and then apportion fund,” Stern said. “I could see how administrators wouldn’t want to be burdened with it.”