In yet another student organization controversy, the University of Wisconsin and the Knights of Columbus, a national Catholic organization, have clashed this summer over their interpretations of the First Amendment.
Despite a few inconsistencies, the Knights of Columbus have been a registered student organization at UW since 1976, but all of a sudden had its student organization status revoked this summer on grounds of membership discrimination.
The Knights are now accusing the university of violating their rights to religious freedom and free assembly.
Patrick Korten, vice president of communications for the Knights of Columbus, said the Knights are currently considering filing a lawsuit against the university.
"The Knights of Columbus is extremely concerned with this case and is actively considering its options," said Korten, who was coincidentally the first Editor in Chief of The Badger Herald. "That would include the possibility of legal action."
According to the UW Student Organization Office (SOO) handbook, registered student organizations are required to abide by federal, state, city and university nondiscrimination laws and policies in order to maintain eligibility.
In late July, SOO realized that the Knights of Columbus restrict their membership to Catholic males ages 18 and older — a violation of the aforementioned laws that had apparently gone unnoticed for nearly three decades.
According to Casey Nagy, executive assistant to Chancellor John Wiley, the Knights also violated another SOO eligibility regulation since they are not actually run by students.
"On both of those considerations," Nagy said, "the Knights did not qualify for RSO status."
Upon this revelation, SOO suggested the Knights form a student branch called the Knights of Columbus Affiliates that would open membership to the entire university. On Aug. 9, Nagy released a statement announcing the Knights had agreed to form the student affiliate group.
But on Aug. 10, a second release followed reversing the previous statement.
"There was a discussion that we believed had moved to a point of understanding," Nagy said. "It turns out that we were incorrect in believing that other parties felt we had reached an understanding."
Nagy added he hopes an agreement will eventually be reached between the Knights and the SOO, but Korten said there is no such settlement in sight.
"What they are attempting to do … is to impose a condition on organizational recognition that they are not permitted constitutionally to do," Korten said.
That supposed unconstitutionality is the subject of an Aug. 4 letter to the university from David French, director of the Center for Academic Freedom at the Alliance Defense Fund, a national legal organization that specializes in protecting religious liberty.
According to French's letter, "A university violates the First Amendment when it dictates the membership and leadership requirements for student organizations," citing a court decision made by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which includes Madison.
On Aug. 15, UW System General Council Patricia Brady wrote back to French, telling him the UW System has a "strong commitment to equal opportunity and diversity," but works in compliance with Wisconsin Statues that prohibit "discrimination in the provision of educational programs."
Brady also mentioned discussions that were in progress about the Knights of Columbus Student Affiliates.
But on Aug. 23, the Knights of Columbus officially refused the Knights of Columbus Affiliates proposal.
"The intermediate association," Korten said, "is … an attempt to try to force the council to be something it is not."