Yesterday, in a victory for fairness and legal equality, the University of Wisconsin Roman Catholic Foundation settled its religious discrimination lawsuit against the University of Wisconsin-Madison (full disclosure: the Alliance Defense Fund represents the Foundation, and I served as counsel for the Foundation). Under the terms of the settlement, the Foundation’s recognition as a student group was affirmed, the university agreed to award the Foundation more than $250,000.00 in student activity fees, and the parties agreed to a framework that should prevent any future viewpoint discrimination. At its essence, the settlement guarantees that the university will treat the Foundation the same as other student groups. In return, the Foundation has clarified and strengthened its student leadership and has separated pure “church” functions (such as weddings, masses, and funerals) from the student organization and placed those functions under a separate organization.
This settlement actually represents something of a landmark moment for Christian organizations on campus. Although the law has for some time allowed these groups equal access to campus facilities and student fee funding, few groups actually receive equal treatment. At many campuses — and despite clear precedent — Christian student groups find their mere presence in peril. Other campuses — while permitting Christian student groups to meet — systematically deny student activity fee funding for religious activities or provide fee awards far smaller than fee awards given to favored groups that are often smaller and less active than many Christian student groups. For example, it is not unusual to see student groups like Campus Crusade for Christ or InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (which are often very large — especially on public campuses) receive fee awards in the range of $500 to $1500, while groups that promote the “cultural” agenda of diversity and multiculturalism receive awards in the tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. This funding disparity has dramatic consequences for the visibility and prominence of the respective organizations’ message on campus, including speaker fees (ever wonder why there’s always money in the budget for famous leftist speakers?) and other forms of purely expressive expenditures. Funding disparities can cause the secular left to “dominate the forum” on campus and cause students to incorrectly assume that the left’s arguments are more popular and persuasive than they are.
At Wisconsin-Madison — for the first time — a religious student group has stepped up and fought for funding at a level that matches its size and activity level. The Roman Catholic Foundation is arguably the largest student group on campus (it certainly serves the most students), and it is now comparably funded to other large (secular) student groups. The long-term ramifications of true legal equality are difficult to predict, but it is certain that the secular left can no longer dominate the forum in Madison. At Wisconsin, the Roman Catholic Foundation has led the way. Will other Christian groups follow its example?