(CN) – The 7th Circuit ruled that a Roman Catholic group at the University of Wisconsin at Madison can receive funding for religious activities.
The University declined to reimburse Badger Catholic, an approved student group, for six activities that the university decided were purely religious in nature. The money comes from an activity fee fund set aside for student groups.
According to Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook, the university “is willing to use student activity fees for what it calls dialog, discussion, or debate from a religious perspective, but not for anything that it labels worship, proselytizing, or religious instruction.”
The university said on appeal that funding of a religious activity is a form of government speech in violation of the Establishment Clause. But Easterbrook said that logic doesn’t apply because the speech in question is that of students rather than that of the school.
“There can be no doubt… that the university’s activity-fee fund must cover Badger Catholic’s six contested programs, if similar programs that espouse a secular perspective are reimbursed.”
Conversely, “the university is free to decline funding for all summer retreats; if it does not pay for training workshops over the summer for members of [another student group,] it need not pay for Badger Catholic’s retreats either,” Easterbrook wrote.
The 7th Circuit dismissed Badger Catholic’s request for an injunction and money damages. Easterbrook explained, “The district judge was not looking for an opportunity to take over management of the university’s activity-fee program. If the entry of a regulatory injunction can be avoided by a simpler declaratory judgment, everyone comes out ahead.”
Judge Ann Claire Williams dissented, explaining her belief that the university had created a limited forum through the activity-fee funding, the content of which it can constitutionally govern to exclude “purely religious practice.”
Williams took issue with the majority’s opinion that the “worship, proselytizing, or religious instruction” activities offered by Badger Catholic cannot be easily distinguished from the “dialog, discussion, or debate from a religious perspective” allowed by the university.
“If religion, and the practice of one’s religion, can be described as merely ‘dialog or debate from a religious perspective,’ what work does the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment do?” she wrote. “The Free Speech clause… would sufficiently protect the right of people to have ‘dialog, discussion or debate from a religious perspective.’ That cannot be right…”
The University of Wisconsin at Madison distributes about $2.5 million each year for student services, which includes counseling, tutoring and student groups. Badger Catholic receives nearly $200,000 from the fund annually, according to the ruling.