MADISON, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has agreed to drop its unconstitutional policies that deny credit to students who fulfill its mandatory community service requirement by volunteering in faith-based activities. As part of a settlement ending a lawsuit that Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed on behalf of two students, the university has agreed to lift its restriction that allowed only non-religious volunteer activity to qualify for “service-learning” credit.
“Faith-based service plays a vital and irreplaceable role in our communities,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “We commend the university for acknowledging that it cannot apply a double standard in evaluating which students should receive credit in this mandatory program. If it wants to require its students to perform community service, it must treat all forms of it as equally valuable. The Constitution prohibits public officials from targeting religious community service and treating it less favorably than other kinds. Community service—whether it’s religious or not—is still community service.”
The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire requires students to perform 30 hours of “service-learning” in order to graduate. Last year, the university denied student Alexandra Liebl her service-learning credit for the 30 hours she volunteered as a religious education teaching assistant at her local Catholic church. Officials cited the university’s service-learning policy, which prohibited students from receiving credit for “time spent involved in promoting religious doctrine, proselytizing, or worship.”
The decision also meant that the 24 hours fellow student Madelyn Rysavy volunteered at the same church’s Sunday school classes would also be ineligible for the mandatory credits needed to graduate.
The original university policies stated that students could earn credit for many activities involving non-religious instruction, persuasion, and recruitment, such as teaching elementary and secondary students or volunteering with campaigns or “political watch groups.” Under the terms of the settlement, the university has changed its policies so that it will no longer discriminate against faith-based community service. In addition, both Liebl and Rysavy have received credit for their community service.
“Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, commissioners, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students,” added ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, director of the Center for Academic Freedom. “Christians are not second-class citizens. UW-Eau Claire should be commended for changing its policies to eliminate this discrimination against religious students.”
In light of the settlement agreement reached with university officials, ADF attorneys filed a notice of voluntary dismissal Thursday in Liebl v. Schmidt with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. ADF-allied attorneys Michael Anderson and Bryan Hough with Axley Brynelson, LLP, are serving as local counsel for the two students in the case.
- Pronunciation guide: Barham (BEHR’-um)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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