MADISON (CNS) -- A federal appeals court has ruled that the University of Wisconsin imposed unconstitutional limits on the activities of a Catholic student group at the school.
The August 30 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling is a victory for the Badger Catholic, which has been arguing with the university for years about which activities are eligible to receive student-fee funding, according to Inside Higher Ed, a Washington-based higher education news journal.
The Badger Catholic is the student organization at St. Paul’s University Catholic Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals was based on several U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have upheld the use of public funds for the activities of religious organizations, Inside Higher Ed reported. The three-member court decided in favor of Badger Catholic, with one judge dissenting.
The ruling hinges on UW-Madison’s creation of a public forum through its distribution of segregated fees, which are collected yearly from students. The University argued that as a public agency, it is entitled to withhold funds from religious speech, and that funding for prayer, proselytizing, or religious instruction would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
“But the University of Wisconsin is not propagating its own message; it has created a public forum where the students, not the University, decide what is to be said. And having created a public forum, the University must honor the private choice,” the court said in its majority ruling.
“It’s a welcome decision, because we hope now that our student group can get funding based on the merit of the program, rather than being discriminated against based on its content,” said Fr. Eric Nielsen, co-pastor of St. Paul’s University Catholic Center.
Serving the student
Nico Fassino, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and budget facilitator and chairperson of the Badger Catholic Board of Directors, said that when the Catholic organization was able to receive funding for programs with a religious feel we were “more effectively able to serve the student.”
Since the decision to deny funding, however, the Badger Catholic was not able to offer programs that explicitly involved prayer or worship. “It’s been a struggle for an organization that’s fundamentally rooted in religion to serve the needs of students on the campus without addressing their spiritual needs,” Fassino said.
Fassino said that he has not yet fully read the ruling, as he has been involved with Badger Catholic “welcome week” activities for incoming and returning college students. But his understanding from the lawyers leads him to believe this will impact not only the Badger Catholic, but other religious student organizations on campus.
“This ruling will allow for all religious organizations on campus to get involved in getting access to funding,” he said. “It will allow student organizations to deepen the level of their offerings, to serve the students in a more unique and effective way now if they are able to offer programs with prayer and worship involved.”
The Badger Catholic serves 4,500 to 5,000 students with student-developed publications, service trips, peer faith mentoring, speaker series, and more, but expects to grow beyond that, Fassino said.
“The Badger Catholic is not some insular Catholic community; our goal is to reach every student on campus,” Fassino said. “We’ve always tried to keep a campus-wide discussion of faith alive, to keep alive the ideas of faith in the student consciousness.”
Advocates for the Badger Catholic called the decision a victory for the constitutional rights of Christian student groups, while groups who disagree with the ruling said it sets a dangerous precedent and that funds for evangelization, prayer, and worship should always come from independent sources, according to Inside Higher Ed.
Contributing to this story were Kat Wagner in Madison and Chaz Muth in Washington, D.C.