The Alliance Defense Fund turned up the heat Monday afternoon in a two-year debate surrounding the funding revocation of the University of Wisconsin-Superior's InterVarsity Christian Fellowship student group.
ADF, based out of Scottsdale, Ariz., filed suit against the UW Board of Regents yesterday after the university refused to recognize the Fellowship group — thereby revoking the group's funding — alleging the group failed to live up to the school's anti-discrimination policy.
The religious group had previously demanded to only allow Christians to serve in leadership positions.
"Christian student groups can and should be led by Christians," David French, director of ADF's Center for Academic Freedom, said in a release. "What's amazing is that the university is willing to openly defy the law in its efforts to marginalize or censor Christian influence on campus."
ADF's lawsuit marks the continuation of one of three religious cases currently being pursued by groups outside the UW System. The Knights of Columbus was revoked funding this year while another Christian group, UW-Madison's Roman Catholic Foundation, has struggled in landing recognition with the university.
The ADF alleges these occurrences have been based on religious grounds.
However, UW officials contest that not recognizing the Christian groups as registered student organizations has had little to do with religion, and more to do with an overall trend of stricter allocations of student fees.
"We have been under some pressure to be more accountable and to ensure more accountability in how these organizations and funds are used," said Casey Nagy, executive assistant to UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley. "It certainly seems to make sense that student organizations should be run by students."
In fall 2003, the Associated Students of Madison amended their bylaws to allow student groups not registered with the Student Organization Office to receive student funding. However, that amendment was revoked last spring, thereby requiring all student-funded groups to be registered with the SOO.
Still, critics allege the most recent denial of recognition is part of UW's larger attack on Christian religious groups at the university.
UWRCF spokesperson Tim Kruse alleges the university has made repeated attempts in the last year to remove funding from the group — beginning last September when SSFC denied recognition, primarily on grounds that the group did not live up to the university's nondiscrimination policy.
Despite ASM's Student Services Finance Committee denying funding last year to UWRCF, the Student Judiciary reinstated the funding in December 2005.
And then, in April 2006, Kruse alleged the university tried to remove funding by citing a 2004 UW legal counsel memorandum, which advised not giving funds to groups located off-campus.
The university's most recent directive demands that all groups applying for university funding must also be registered student organizations. The registered status is approved by the SOO, which in turn is run by university administrators — not students. However, registered status will not affect UWRCF this year as the eligibility hearings they successfully won last year grant them student funding for two years.
Still, Kruse and others worry denial of registered status could hurt the religious group in the future.
The Student Organization Office, according to an e-mail from Director Yvonne Fangmeyer, denied recognition to UWRCF on grounds it was not run by UW-Madison students nor did it grant accessibility to all students, thus breaking the university's nondiscrimination policy.
While SSFC requires UWRCF to have only three student members as part of their governing board, SOO requirements demanded UWRCF have an undefined amount that would designate the group as obviously being run by students.
In addition, UWRCF officials argue they have always allowed all members of the university community into their ranks, and French said UWRCF maintains the legal right to discriminate within its membership regardless. If UWRCF were denied that right, he said, the group's First Amendment free speech rights would be breached, and it would invariably destroy a religious group's mission.
According to French, the university has failed to employ a decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals involving Southern Illinois University giving religious groups the right to discriminate its membership.
"The sad fact is that secular public universities have essentially become church schools of the left," French said in an interview. "They've changed from telling you how [to] think, but what to think they have discerned to be the right answer."
Still, UW administrators say they have neither encroached on UWRCF's First Amendment rights, nor those of any other student organization.
"I think all you need to do is look around campus at the wide diversity of student organizations that are welcome on campus and the wide diversity of views that are welcome on campus," Nagy said.
The Big Picture
With three cases involving religious groups and student funding being faced with either investigation or lawsuit in the UW System, the discussion involving such concepts as the "marketplace of ideas" and the mission of a university are set to take off in the coming months.
"If there's any segment of our society that should be dedicated to the marketplace of ideas, it should be the university," French said. "The Supreme Court has long said that if you limit the right of free speech on campus, our very culture may stagnate and die."
Religious groups across the country have been the target of university administrators, which has resulted in a slew of cases including those at the University of California's Hastings College of Law, Ohio State University, University of North Carolina and Penn State University. In most instances, court battles have fallen on the side of religious groups who fought to have their recognition or funding reinstated.
"Religious groups have got [out] the word that they should be included, and they are now becoming more active in this area, and so they're going to make this a matter," UW political science professor Donald Downs said.
According to Downs, who specializes in First Amendment and academic freedom concerns, universities need to continue the discussion regarding UWRCF, the university's largest student group. Downs noted recent controversy surrounding embattled UW-Madison Languages and Cultures of Asia lecturer Kevin Barrett, was also indicative of the type of university atmosphere that must be discussed at UW.
"What if he had been a radical right-winger? Would the university have done this? … I think the university would have been even-handed but this whole thing makes it look murkier," Downs said. "Do we sponsor intellectual diversity or do we simply tolerate it?"