Victory for Religious Liberty at the University of Wisconsin

May 10, 2007

A few days ago David French reported over at Phi Beta Cons that the University of Wisconsin Roman Catholic Foundation settled its religious discrimination lawsuit against the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The terms of the settlement consisted of the following:

[T]he Foundation’s recognition as a student group was affirmed, the university agreed to award the Foundation more than $250,000.00 in student activity fees, and the parties agreed to a framework that should prevent any future viewpoint discrimination. At its essence, the settlement guarantees that the university will treat the Foundation the same as other student groups. In return, the Foundation has clarified and strengthened its student leadership and has separated pure “church” functions (such as weddings, masses, and funerals) from the student organization and placed those functions under a separate organization.

FIRE reported the controversy in detail last September, when several Christian groups in addition to the Roman Catholic Foundation at the University of Wisconsin–Madison lost their recognition status and the accompanying funding. The university argued that funding and recognizing religious groups was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment despite clear Supreme Court precedent to the contrary in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia and Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth.

In February, FIRE reported that the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents passed a policy that allows religious student groups to determine membership based on belief. In March, a federal judge ordered the university to desist from applying the non-discrimination policy to the beliefs of religious organizations.

French believes that this is a landmark case setting clear precedent for equal treatment of campus Christian organizations.

Although the law has for some time allowed [Christian] groups equal access to campus facilities and student fee funding, few groups actually receive equal treatment. At many campuses—and despite clear precedent—Christian student groups find their mere presence in peril. Other campuses—while permitting Christian student groups to meet—systematically deny student activity fee funding for religious activities or provide fee awards far smaller than fee awards given to favored groups that are often smaller and less active than many Christian student groups.

We at FIRE are glad that students are stepping up to defend their constitutional right to religious liberty and welcome any student or faculty member whose constitutional rights are violated to submit a case and join the Campus Freedom Network.

Schools:  University of Wisconsin – Madison