The debate concerning the allocation of student-segregated fees continues to rage, and I refuse to pretend that I'm going to solve all the problems concerning segregated fees in this column. That said, I've got a great solution to the issue of whether or not the university practices religious discrimination through the use of student-segregated fees — cut off religious organizations completely.
I want to make something very clear: This column is not an attack on any specific religion or set of religious beliefs. I am of the opinion that religion is a personal, private choice and government institutions should not limit anyone's religious — or nonreligious, for that matter — beliefs. However, "not limiting" also implies "not encouraging," which is exactly what the University of Wisconsin does when funding religious organizations.
The most prominent example of this practice revolves around the controversy surrounding the Roman Catholic Foundation of the University of Wisconsin. The uproar caused by the debate over whether or not to fund RCF-UW provides a perfect reason why the university — and public institutions in general — should refrain from providing funds to any religious organization that actively recruits new members into its faith.
Let us take a step back and analyze why we have segregated fees in the first place.
The official goal of segregated fees is to create a vibrant marketplace of ideas with the hope of facilitating an active culture of debate in the student body. Most religions, by their nature, are not open for debate. In a Sept. 13 news article in The Badger Herald, the Rev. Eric Nielsen of St. Paul's — where RCF-UW is based — said Catholics can entertain a certain amount of doubt, "as long as he or she doesn't enter into a 'radical stage of disbelief or rejection.'" In other words, critically analyze the Catholic faith, but stop as soon as you start to change your mind.
That doesn't exactly sound like an encouraging open exchange of ideas to me. This isn't a trait particular to the Catholic faith — most religions have specific doctrines the faithful have to adhere to that are not open for debate.
Don't get me wrong; religious organizations do a lot of good in the communities they serve. However, the evangelical, recruiting nature of most religions should prevent them from receiving funds from public institutions.
The court system has weighed in on this issue multiple times. Unfortunately, they have done so incorrectly. In Rosenberger v. the University of Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled the university's decision not to fund the printing costs of the Christian student publication "Wide Awake,"because of its message, was unconstitutional. The majority wrote that the university could not "regulate speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction." At first glance, the Court appears to have ruled correctly, but a closer examination of the publication's message reveals that the Court got it wrong.
The dissent noted that funding the publication represented a violation of the Establishment Clause because "Wide Awake," rather than openly discussing theological issues, actively encouraged its readers to accept Jesus Christ. Due to the evangelical nature of the publication, funding the printing costs represented a direct violation of the Establishment Clause. Unfortunately, the majority got it wrong.
The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Public institutions violate this fundamental feature of the Constitution by giving money to religious organizations. I can't think of a much better way to aid the establishment of religion than to provide religious groups with public funds.
The court system has often justified public funding of religion by arguing that as long as one religion is not preferred over another, the Establishment Clause is not violated. I find this to be thoroughly unconvincing. It doesn't matter whether one or many are supported — public funding of religion is a public endorsement of religion, and therefore the Establishment Clause is violated.
The dissenting opinion in the Rosenberger decision got it right, and its opinion should be applied here at the University of Wisconsin. RCF-UW's home page is that of St. Paul's University Catholic Center, and a glance at the mission statement of St. Paul's reveals that it is an evangelical organization and should therefore be ineligible for university funds.
We're treading dangerous water here. If we allow student funds to go toward the promotion of one religion over another, campus discourse mutates into religious endorsement.
We have two options in settling this debate. The first is that we fund all religious and nonreligious groups fairly. This means that all religions, even the recently made up, satirical ones like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, would have an equal claim to university fees. The second is that no religious organization is eligible for funding. The second is the simpler, more rational choice. It's about time we made it.
Corey Sheahan ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in history and economics.