Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A Good Ruling on Religious Freedom

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the University of Wisconsin at Madison must fund religious activities by a Catholic student group.

In the past, Madison officials had rightly rejected funding requests from the predecessor to Badger Catholic on the correct grounds that students did not fully control the organization. But a reorganization means that students now run the group, and the funding must be allowed.

Religious speech should be treated exactly the same as all other speech. That was the foundation of the Supreme Court's correct ruling in CLS v. Martinez, Rosenberger, and numerous other cases. We must regard religious speech as equal for two reasons. First, because it is equal. And second, because the attempt by a public university to distinguish between religious and non-religious activity puts public officials in the impossible position of judging what religion is and what it means.

The judge who wrote the ruling in the Madison case, Frank Easterbrook, was also the author of the deeply flawed majority opinion in Hosty v. Carter, where he decreed that student newspapers could be controlled by the administration at whim. That ruling was a terrible defeat for student freedom on campus, and I certainly wonder if Easterbrook's opinion in this case reflects his personal support for conservative religious groups rather than the principle of freedom on campus. Amazingly, Easterbrook actually cites the Hosty case in his Madison opinion as if it were a defense of free speech on campus, rather than the opposite.

But regardless of his motives, Easterbrook's opinion in this case is right.

In dissent, Judge Williams makes a number of valid arguments defending the Madison decision to deny funding for some activities involving "worship, proselytizing or prayer." And it is true that Badger Catholic receives an absurd amount of funding, and that these religious activities may not have met the standards for funding. Williams claims that the problem was only in how the religious activities were described. However, Madison must use neutral reasons to deny funding requests; if valid reasons exist, then they can be used, but denying funding for religious activities is absolutely not acceptable.

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