In September we told you the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the University of Wisconsin violated the First Amendment by refusing to fund the religious activities of a Catholic student group named Badger Catholic at its Madison campus (the case name is Badger Catholic v. Walsh). A few months later, the University doubled down and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Seventh Circuit’s decision. Several higher education associations supported the University’s efforts and told the Supreme Court that the universities they represent want the ability to discriminate against religious speech on campus. Today, the Supreme Court refused to take the University’s appeal, which upholds the tremendous victory Badger Catholic received from the Seventh Circuit.
Badger Catholic (formerly known on campus as the Roman Catholic Foundation) has been engaged in litigation against the University of Wisconsin for five years now. In 2006, the University kicked the student group off campus for violating the University’s non-discrimination policy and refused to allocate student fees to fund the group’s activities. After a federal court intervened to stop the University, the University settled the case and agreed to allow it viewpoint neutral access to the student activity fees. Before the ink dried on the settlement agreement in 2007, the University broke its promise and refused to fund any Badger Catholic activity that included prayer, worship, or proselytizing. Since many of the group’s activities included some form of those types of speech, the Badger Catholic was effectively barred from the student fee system. So Badger Catholic sued again. A federal district court and the Seventh Circuit both ruled in its favor.
The Supreme Court usually takes cases only when there is a disagreement among the federal courts of appeals or if a case presents an important constitutional question. The fact that the Court refused to take the University’s appeal indicates–rightly so–that the Seventh Circuit’s decision was correct: the First Amendment guarantees that religious expression will receive equal access to government forums created for speech.
Interestingly, the higher education associations that supported the University of Wisconsin’s efforts said that the following universities have policies like the University of Wisconsin’s policy: Virginia Tech, Old Dominion, William and Mary Law School, Penn State and the University of Michigan-Flint. And that’s just the beginning. Just last week, we wrote about a similar policy that Indiana University-Bloomington changed recently. I doubt these other universities will change their policies without a fight.
If your university prohibits religious groups from accessing student activity fees, let us know. The victory for Badger Catholic may help change that problem.