Religious Freedom Under Assault at the University of Wisconsin (Again)

September 27, 2006

The University of Wisconsin is once again impinging upon the religious freedom of its students. The current debacle began in February when the Freedom from Religion Foundation urged the University of Wisconsin–Madison to de-fund the University of Wisconsin Roman Catholic Foundation and other religious groups. In April the University of Wisconsin–Madison said that it would fund the Foundation but it would consider de-funding the group the following year. The school is arguing that funding a religious group violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, despite clear Supreme Court precedent to the contrary in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia and Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (apparently UW still doesn’t understand the idea of viewpoint neutrality).
On July 10, the Seventh Circuit Court handed down a decision holding that student organizations must be allowed to choose members on the basis of belief—which also means the right to exclude students who do not share the basic beliefs of the group. As FIRE has written many times “a Muslim organization has a right to be Muslim, a Jewish organization has a right to be Jewish, and a Christian organization has a right to be Christian. It is not tolerance but intolerance to forbid such voluntary associations.” (Read the amicus brief FIRE filed on behalf of the plaintiff). This decision is binding on the University of Wisconsin but the administration has essentially ignored it. 
The Alliance Defense Fund wrote a letter to the University of Wisconsin demanding that they recognize the students’ right to religious liberty. The University of Wisconsin responded in return that they would not only refuse to recognize the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization, but they would also consider derecognizing six to 12 additional groups! Interestingly, the University of Wisconsin is arguing that the Southworth decision demands they consider viewpoint when funding groups, which of course is the exact opposite effect of that ruling. (Read about the real meaning of the Southworth decision in FIRE’s Guide to Student Fees, Funding, and Legal Equality on Campus). In a bizarre twist the school announced that it had reached an agreement with the Knights of Columbus in which the Catholic men’s group would drop its membership requirement that allowed only Catholic men to join in exchange for official recognition. The school quickly rescinded the announcement since no such agreement had been reached.
On Saturday the Associated Press reported that the University of Wisconsin–Madison was refusing to recognize the Roman Catholic Foundation because they had an insufficient number of students on their advisory board even though all of the group’s programs are operated by students. The announcement from the school came on the heels of the Foundation’s notice that they have filed a complaint with the civil rights division of the Department of Justice against the University of Wisconsin. According to a top aide to University of Wisconsin–Madison Chancellor John Wiley, the school still claimed that it would continue to refuse funding to the Catholic group unless it opened it membership to all students—believers or not— so as not to “violate the separation of church and state.” This is such a total misrepresentation and complete misapplication of constitutional law that it strains credibility to think it might merely be an honest, good faith misunderstanding of law. The University of Wisconsin’s announcement is a change of tactics, not a change of heart. The Christian Legal Society and Calvary Chapel, a Lutheran group, have been derecognized for, you guessed it, their Christian viewpoint. Other Christian groups are being contacted by the administration and interrogated regarding their faith practices. Discrimination is not limited to the Madison campus, the University of Wisconsin–Superior is refusing the recognize an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group.
FIRE is dedicated to protecting religious liberty at American universities as evidenced by FIRE’s many cases championing the right of people of faith to exercise their religion free of government interference. The University of Wisconsin system is not completely hopeless; FIRE was victorious in its fight to lift a ban on Bible studies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. Once again, as always, we stand ready to defend the First Amendment rights of students within the University of Wisconsin system.

Schools:  University of Wisconsin – Madison