Friday, April 27, 2007

Catholics Victorious at U of Wisconsin; Sadness Reigns in Many Secular Dwellings

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The Badger Herald (equivalent to the MN Daily, one supposes), has a very favorable editorial/opinion piece on the victory of the UofW's Roman Catholic Foundation's victory in the court after a long battle that entitles them to their fair share of student activity fees.

Justice, at last.

After a yearlong legal struggle, a federal court has ruled that the University of Wisconsin Roman Catholic Foundation is eligible to receive segregated fee funding. It seems that the final chapter of one of the year’s most misunderstood stories has been written.

Denied funding by the Student Service Finance Committee last fall, the UWRCF has since endured a long legal battle with the university. Most students of a secular mindset — like me — have probably instinctually sided against the religious organization. But if you take a step back and let the facts of the case fall into place, it becomes clear that, under the current segregated fee system, UWRCF is entitled to campus funds.

The most frequent criticism of UWRCF is that it is a religious organization. Shouldn’t a religious group be ineligible for funding at a public university? And isn’t this a violation of the First Amendment? To both questions, the answer is no. UWRCF does not receive money from student tuition and is, therefore, not supplemented by Wisconsin taxpayers. Rather, it receives funding from segregated fees, a financial source independent of government revenue. This practice is constitutionally sound.

Many students may have issues with the current manner in which the Student Services Finance Committee allots funds, or perhaps are opposed to the segregated fee system altogether. While I am certainly not of the latter opinion, such issues are not related to the current eligibility of UWRCF for SSFC funding.

The issue rarely discussed in this case is why UWRCF is being singled out. Other religious groups — including the Hillel, the Muslim Student Association and various Protestant groups — also receive SSFC money, according to Associated Students of Madison documents. According to The Badger Herald, SSFC originally claimed that the UWRCF used “exclusionary” language in its bylaws. UWRCF later removed the material deemed controversial and vigorously asserts that its services are open to all students, including non-Catholics. Therefore, it falls in line with the SSFC’s non-discrimination requirement.

Detractors will claim that a Catholic organization — regardless of its officially inclusive status — is obviously unwelcoming to non-Catholics. This may be the case, but such a claim fails to address the identically exclusive nature of other student groups on campus, including other religious ones. Would a Catholic feel at home at the Lutheran Campus Ministry? Probably not.

Nonreligious groups operate in a similar manner. Just as a non-Catholic would likely not join UWRCF, neither would a political conservative join the College Democrats.

Either way, the fact that UWRCF only identifies with a certain segment of the campus population is a moot legal criticism. The 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case, Board of Regents of U. of Wis. v. Southworth, ruled that student activity fees could be dispersed to organizations with which other students have disagreement.

A final and less controversial criticism of UWRCF is that its board has historically had more non-students than students — a violation of SSFC bylaws. A March 9 ruling stated that this made it ineligible for funding. UWRCF has since altered the status of its board, satisfying the only legitimate legal contention against it.

UW’s Roman Catholic Foundation may have technically been in violation of SSFC eligibility requirements, but the real reasons for its denial of funding are more complicated.

The Offices of the Dean of Students, for example, has never been a friend of the Catholic group. Speaking before SSFC members in November 2005, UW Interim Associate Dean of Students Elton Crim expressed his belief that UWRCF is unbefitting of segregated fee money. To what extent has SSFC been influenced by this kind of behavior by high-ranking university officials?

Even more suspicious is the manner in which UWRCF was denied funding. If the matter were truly as simple as a lack of students on the group’s board, the decision would have been made immediately. The delay raises serious questions about the motivation behind the decision.

Ultimately, UWRCF is now on safe legal ground, as recognized in the recent ruling. Most of the objection to its reception of student money is based on misinformation, or even worse, anti-Catholic bias. It is impossible to ignore that non-Catholic groups have not dealt with similar harassment from the university. In this context, UWRCF’s claims of discrimination, at the very least, deserve serious consideration.

Regardless of your political or religious beliefs, the university’s treatment of UWRCF should give us all pause.

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