— The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled Wednesday that University of Wisconsin-Madison officials violated the First Amendment by refusing to fund events of a student Catholic organization while providing funding for the events of other student organizations. The university refused funds from student activity fees because the student group’s events contained religious expression, including prayer, worship, and proselytization. The court affirmed lower court rulings that concluded the funding refusal amounted to unconstitutional discrimination based on viewpoint.
ADF filed suit after the university violated the terms of a settlement agreement reached in a previous lawsuit ADF filed on behalf of the same group, Badger Catholic, formerly known as the Roman Catholic Foundation.
“The constitutional rights of Christian student organizations should be recognized by university officials just as they recognize those rights for other student groups,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence, who argued before the court in October of last year. “The university funded the advocacy and expression of other student organizations but singled out Badger Catholic for exclusion based purely upon its viewpoint. The 7th Circuit rightly regarded this as unconstitutional.”
In January 2008, a federal district judge granted a preliminary injunction in the case, Roman Catholic Foundation v. Walsh, now named Badger Catholic v. Walsh. Last year, a different judge issued a final ruling partially in Badger Catholic’s favor. The university appealed, claiming it had the right to deny funding to Badger Catholic because it is a religious student group. The court rejected that argument.
In its opinion, the 7th Circuit concluded that “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…. [A] university cannot shape Badger Catholic’s message by selectively funding the speech it approves, but not the speech it disapproves. Once it creates a public forum, a university must accept all comers within the forum’s scope.”
The court also pointed out that the recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez does not contradict--but instead reinforces--the 7th Circuit’s conclusion in this case.
“There can be no doubt after Christian Legal Society 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,” the court wrote.
The court upheld the district court’s declaratory judgment in the case, warning, “A litigant who tries to evade a federal court’s judgment—and a declaratory judgment is a real judgment, not just a bit of friendly advice—will come to regret it.”