• August 29, 2015

U. of Wisconsin Cannot Exclude Religious Group From Student Fees, Court Says

A federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday against the University of Wisconsin at Madison in a case over whether the university could refuse to distribute student fees to a group of Roman Catholic students.

Upholding a federal district court's decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found, in a 2-1 ruling, that the university could not exclude the group, Badger Catholic, from receiving student fees for activities such as worship, proselytizing, and religious instruction.

The appeals court noted that the university had defended its policy of "paying for student activities without regard to the speakers' perspectives" in a 2000 case, University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Although the university promised the Supreme Court in Southworth to distribute funds without regard to the content and viewpoint of the students' speech, it has concluded that this promise does not apply to speech that constitutes the practice of religion," wrote Judge Frank H. Easterbrook for the majority.

But citing the lower-court ruling, Judge Easterbrook concluded that giving money to a student group that engages in religious activities does not violate the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

"If the university decides that no student group should receive more than 1 percent of the fund, or some dollar cap, it could apply that neutral rule to Badger Catholic in common with all other claimants on the limited pot," Judge Easterbrook wrote. "But having decided that counseling programs are within the scope of the activity fee, the university cannot exclude those that offer prayer as one means of relieving the anxiety that many students experience."

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote that the university had acted in a manner that was both "viewpoint neutral and constitutionally sound."


1. bstevens - September 01, 2010 at 04:25 pm

Kansas State University includes many student clubs that have religious purposes, and they are supported as long as they allow any student to join.

2. jaysanderson - September 01, 2010 at 04:27 pm

Freedom OF religion, not FROM religion. A bit of clarity from the courts--very refreshing.

3. crunchycon - September 01, 2010 at 04:30 pm

The Federal appeals court ruled correctly.

4. akprof - September 01, 2010 at 04:49 pm

The court may have been correct in its ruling but I would be annoyed to be targeted for proselytizing! Ah well - - -

5. wyopaul - September 01, 2010 at 05:19 pm

There is nothing new here. This is just following the law regarding student groups as it currently stands. The law was developed in cases involving public high schools and now it is accurately applied to public universities.

6. dherbst - September 01, 2010 at 05:22 pm

I hope that the court would have responded the same way if the student group had the sane goals but was the Islanic Student Association.

7. dherbst - September 01, 2010 at 05:31 pm

I apologize for my typos in the last comment. It should read same goals (not sane goals) and Islamic (not Islanic). This is the last time I respond with my Blackberry.

8. schultzjc - September 01, 2010 at 06:28 pm

So, prayer and counseling are equivalent? By what measure? Fantasy?

"...having decided that counseling programs are within the scope of the activity fee, the university cannot exclude those that offer prayer as one means of relieving the anxiety that many students experience."

Marijuana relieves anxiety. Can you get part of the student fee pot by forming a Tokers Club?

9. bphil - September 01, 2010 at 07:12 pm

I agree with Wyopaul: nothing new here. I'm not a fan of the ruling, but it's not an affront to my sensibilities (though I wonder what will happen when the same group wants to reserve the student union for a Mass).

I do want to point out how divergent in its basis and outcomes this ruling is from what some in the religious crowd also want: the right to exclude gays from groups funded by student fees. That the courts can support the use of student fees to fund prayer circles is fine by me if the circle is totally inclusive. The goal is to help students find a place, not to exclude them. And if that place is in the student-fee-funded chapter of N.O.R.M.L., then the world is truly perfect.

10. gabrielinaz - September 01, 2010 at 09:50 pm

@akprof - And I was just going to ask you what you were doing Sunday morning.

11. 22228715 - September 02, 2010 at 07:57 am

schultzjc... probably. The fairly clear precedence here is that the student or U funding process must be content-neutral. (That does not mean that employees of the U or the local police will be behavior-neutral... another set of laws come into play there.)

12. dank48 - September 02, 2010 at 08:28 am

I too would be annoyed to be targeted for proselytizing, but the Constitution doesn't guarantee freedom from annoyance. Good thing too.

13. bertnb - September 02, 2010 at 08:32 am

Prayer is legal; pot is not. But I suspect you knew that before you wrote your post.

14. rosmerta - September 02, 2010 at 09:45 am

dherbst - I suspect that an Islamic group would receive funding more readily than a Catholic one, given the PC climate in most institutions these days.

Not saying that either group should not receive funding, just to be clear.

15. hms3683 - September 02, 2010 at 09:54 am

BStevens (comment 1) suggests that the criteria for receiving student fee distribution is the ability of all students to join. How does a Jew, Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, etc join in the activities of a group whose basis is the acceptance of the truth of another faith? The answer is that they don't join. But the answer is also that white students don't join the black student association, Men don't join the women's clubs, and non-minority ethnic groups don't join the ethnic clubs. Exclusivity is built into such organizations. On the other hand, the football boosters, chess club, debating society, classic film association, etc would gladly welcome any of diverse groups on campus to participate. There are, in fact, two categories of fee-based student organizations on campus. Is anybody addressing this with a two-tiered funding system that encourages non-exclusivity?

16. robbie1 - September 02, 2010 at 10:06 am

Are not mandatory fees (activities fee?) students at U. of Wisconsin pay a form of direct taxation?
How under our laws is it acceptable for the government, doing business in this case as a state university, to tax citizens and give the money to promote the faith activities of ANY religion?

I practice my faith and do not want the government involved in it ever--certainly NOT giving citizens' taxes to promote my or anyone else's faith.

Wake up! Religious groups are afforded tax exempt status under our laws. If they want taxes handed out to them, they should not be tax exempt. PERIOD.

The activities of some religious sects (witnessing, or whatever you want to call it), at times on some campuses, is conducted in aggressive, insulting and entirely obnoxious ways. "Their way is the only way" entitling them to intrude into people's personal space and pressure with threats of eternal damnation or promises of the greatest love and eternal bliss...whichever theme they have chosen for the day.
Why does anyone think student fees should support this? Religious groups should respect others' faith and should pay to spread their own faith. PERIOD.

17. dobbsart - September 02, 2010 at 10:13 am

Having just spent six years at UW-Madison, I can say that part of the issue here--clearly overlooked by the court in its ruling--was that the student group in question was highly exclusionary, openly so, and flaunted that in its request for funding. Yet they believed that because they were students, and organized, they were fully entitled to student organization funding. They were highly contentious and self-righteous (really??!??!) in their dealings with the university.

18. jjm292010 - September 02, 2010 at 10:32 am

"But the answer is also that white students don't join the black student association, Men don't join the women's clubs, and non-minority ethnic groups don't join the ethnic clubs. Exclusivity is built into such organizations."

I just wanted to point out that part of BStevens' comment is factually incorrect. At our institution there are white members of each racial/ethnic student organization, there are men in several of "women's" organizations, and there are straight allies in our LGBT group. Exclusivity is not necessarily built into these organizations, though students overwhelmingly self-select not to be in organizations where they wouldn't feel comfortable.

19. etalvitie - September 02, 2010 at 03:25 pm

@ jaysanderson, you are completely wrong. in order to have freedom of religion, we inherently also have freedom from religion. freedom of religion, after all, implies freedom from OTHER religions. atheists simply are free of one more religion than theists.

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