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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008

Catholic students claim discrimination by university


A Catholic student group is suing the University of Wisconsin at Madison, claiming it is being discriminated against because it is a religious organization.

The Roman Catholic Foundation says the university unfairly refused to release funds from student fees to pay for some of its activities. The university has disallowed funds to pay for activities such as printing Lenten booklets, running evangelical Catholic training camps and hosting retreats where counselors were priests and nuns.

The Roman Catholic Foundation has served more than 50,000 students at the university since its inception in 1883. Its legal disputes with the university date back almost two years.

The feud is being watched by school administrators and religious groups across the country who believe it may set legal precedents.

Another suit was settled in May 2007, with the university awarding the group about $250,000 in student fees for the 2006-07 school year. In exchange, the foundation agreed to become a separate entity from the local St. Paul’s Catholic University Center and not seek funding for activities of religious expression that involve “worship,” “prayer” and/or “proselytizing.”

The latest suit, filed last September in U.S. District Court, claims that the university is violating the settlement by refusing to fully fund activities and giving the foundation’s budget greater scrutiny than other student groups. It asks for $39,000 in actual and compensatory damages plus unspecified punitive damages.

University spokesman John Lucas called the suit baseless, saying the group is treated the same as any religious student organization. He said some of the foundation’s activities were too overtly religious in nature and the university’s funding of them would violate the separation of church and state principle.

A spokesman for the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom, a legal advocacy group, said the university is “pulling out all the stops to eliminate the group.”

The foundation’s legal counsel said that an institution cannot cut off funding for a group “simply because it dislikes its message.”

The alliance said the university is violating foundation members’ rights to freedom of association. The university has a continuing pattern of harassing not only the Catholic foundation but multiple Christian groups on campus, the alliance said.

Joe Winter is a freelance writer living in Hudson, Wis.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008

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