The University of Wisconsin seems to have a problem with free speech issues, especially when they intersect with religious faith.
That’s according to a legal organization that has had to sue the school seven times over alleged violations of the Constitution’s protection for free speech.
“Consider sharing this blog on social media to spread the word about the poor climate for free speech at the University of Wisconsin and to shed light on university policies that suppress free speech,” Sarah Kramer of the Alliance Defending Freedom wrote recently.
The latest case involves two students at the school’s Eau Claire branch “who are being denied credit for mandatory community service simply because their activities involved religion.”
The posting explained the case challenges the school’s practice of denying credit for community service when any element of faith is involved.
For example, one can get credit for teaching, but not teaching anything religious, or for singing, but not singing in a religious group.
“No public university should ever use a community service program as a vehicle to advance and instill anti-religious bias,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham when the case was filed.
“If the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire wants to require its students to perform community service, it must treat all forms of community service as equally valuable. The Constitution and federal court precedent prohibit it from targeting religious community service and denying students credit for it. That kind of animosity toward and discrimination against religion is unconstitutional.”
The student, Alexandra Liebl, sought to obtain service-learning credit for the 30 hours she spent volunteering with a second-grade religious education class at a local Roman Catholic church.
School officials refused.
Another student, Madelyn Rysavy, also realized that she would not receive credit for the approximately 24 hours she spent volunteering in the same church’s Sunday School classes, and she has yet to submit them.
ADF contends the policy “unconstitutionally singles out religious beliefs, preferences, and values for exclusion by specifying that ‘this public university will not award credit for time spent directly involved in promoting religious doctrine, proselytizing, or worship.'”
“This is raw favoritism of non-religious ‘beliefs, preferences, and values’ over religious ones, and that’s not constitutional,” Barham said. “The university prohibits students from receiving service-learning credit for activities that involve religious instruction, persuasion, and recruitment, but it awards credit – and even encourages students to seek credit – for activities that involve the same forms of expression from a non-religious perspective.
“But the First Amendment prohibits government officials from preferring some viewpoints while exiling, denigrating, or targeting others,” he said.
But that’s just the latest, Kramer said.
“Some universities never learn,” Kramer blogged. “You would think after the seventh time we’ve taken legal action against the University of Wisconsin System (UW), that their campuses would be more open to free speech and that they would more closely resemble a true ‘marketplace of ideas.’
“No such luck.”
One previous case involved student Scott Southworth, a student at UW, who asked to opt out of the mandatory student fee, which was being used to fund student groups and organizations with which he disagreed.
When the university refused his request, ADF filed suit against the university on his behalf. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, “where the court ruled 9-0 that the university must change its policy and distribute the fees in a viewpoint-neutral manner because the fees were mandatory,” ADF reported.
Then ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Badger Catholic at UW-Madison, and an appeals court in Chicago said the university “violated the First Amendment by denying funding to Badger Catholic events that included prayer, worship, or proselytizing while providing funding for other student organizations events.”
There also was a case brought by another student group.
ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on UW-Superior’s campus after the university declined to recognize InterVarsity as an official student group.
“The university claimed the Christian student group was in violation of the schools ‘nondiscrimination’ policy which would require the group to open its leadership to everyone, even those who do not uphold the religious mission of the group. The university settled the lawsuit and allowed InterVarsity official recognition as a student group,” ADF said.
Also, there was the case of Lance Steiger, a resident assistant in Eau Claire, Kramer noted.
He “held a Bible study in his room for interested students, but he received a letter from the school stating that he was violating school policy and would receive ‘disciplinary action’ if he continued to host the Bible study.”
After a lawsuit, the “university agreed to revise its policies to allow RAs to lead, organize, and participate in activities to the same extent as other students on campus.”