The University of Virginia has been told by the United States Supreme Court that it must subsidise a student religious magazine in the same way as it funds other student publications.
The Rosenberger v. the University of Virginia ruling is being viewed as important because in many people's eyes it amounts to direct funding of a religious organisation by a public institution. One of the fundamental tenets of the US Constitution is the separation of church from state: the belief that for religion to mean something, it must be voluntary and free of government assistance and control.
The majority of the justices ruled that, once a state-supported university decides to underwrite the private speech of any group of students, it "may not silence the expression of selected viewpoints" on the grounds that the expression is religious in content.
Liberal groups and those advocating strict church-state separation were appalled by the decision while conservative religous groups were delighted. However, the former took heart from the closeness of the vote, which was decided by a five to four majority.
The leader of the dissenters, Justice David Souter, appointed to the court by president Bush, said: "The court today, for the first time, approves direct funding of core religious activities by an arm of the state."
He said it was a "flat violation" of the First Amendment's prohibition against government "establishment" of religion for an agency of the state "to support religious evangelism with direct funding".
The case arose because a former student at the university had applied for $5,800 from a student activities fund to publish Wide Awake: A Christian Perspective at the University of Virginia. He argued that, of the 118 student organisations receiving funds, there were Jewish, Muslim and other Christian groups, some of which also published magazines.
The university said those groups could be funded because their activities and magazines were primarily cultural, not religious. Because many of the articles in Wide Awake were religious, the university said it could not allow publication to be subsidised. Mr Rosenberger sued. All the lower courts supported the university.
The ruling is likely to affect the many other universities and colleges that fund groups in the same way. But it is unclear whether it will affect the controversial idea of tuition vouchers for religious schools - as voucher proponents are hoping.