A Victory for Religious Expression on Campus

by David French

Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the University of Wisconsin’s appeal of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the university must dispense student fees regardless of the religious content of a student group’s program or message. The Seventh Circuit’s ruling was hardly groundbreaking. After all, the Supreme Court has ruled since 1981 that universities had to provide religious student groups viewpoint-neutral access to campus facilities and since 1995 that universities had to provide religious organizations viewpoint-neutral access to student-fee funding (it’s often forgotten that the Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in Rosenberger involved funding a magazine that explicitly proselytized). These rulings make common sense. After all, religious speech is, well, speech, and religious students pay the same student-activity fees that all other students pay.

Unfortunately, however, liberal academics tend to despise religious speech — especially Christian speech — and for years have been waging a rear-guard action against these decisions. In fact, as I outlined last month, the American Council on Education and other academic organizations joined an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to reverse the Seventh Circuit and permit universities to explicitly discriminate against religious students and organizations seeking fees from the very system they fund.

The ACE told Insider Higher Ed that it was “disappointed” in the Supreme Court’s decision to decline to hear the University of Wisconsin’s appeal and emphasized that the Wisconsin ruling “is not binding in areas other than the Seventh Circuit.” This is a curious statement, considering that the Seventh Circuit’s decision represented a straightforward application of Supreme Court precedent. It is also a defiant statement. So defiant, in fact, that the ACE went out of its way to identify specific schools that do not comply with Supreme Court precedent and by policy discriminate against religious expression, including William and Mary Law School, Virginia Tech, the University of Michigan-Flint, Penn State, and Old Dominion.

I’m sure the taxpayers of Virginia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania appreciate that their flagship institutions of higher education are flouting the law and essentially provoking costly litigation. It’s sad that universities prefer lawsuits to the simple solution — protecting all speech, religious and secular, from discrimination and exclusion.

Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.