Roman Catholic Foundation sues UW-Madison

By Marie Wilson

The Roman Catholic Foundation, a religious student organization at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is suing the school for refusing to fund evangelical training camps, religious retreats and Lenten booklets.

A judge in a U.S. District Court issued a preliminary ruling Jan. 17 in favor of the Foundation’s claim that refusing to fund these activities violated the group’s First Amendment right to free speech.

The funding in question is a $39,000 chunk of the Foundation’s $288,000 budget for the 2006-2007 academic year, said Alexander Gallagher, a senior at UW-Madison and chair of the student service finance committee.

Conversely, religious organizations at the University seem to understand the limits of what can and cannot be publicly funded, said Brooks Moore, student organization resource fee administrator.

“We haven’t had the types of requests for religious programs that are under scrutiny,” Moore said. “We do fund religious groups, and they do get money for educational or informational activities.”

The goal of the Student Organization Resource Fee, also known as SORF, is to fund events and activities that contribute to the educational environment on campus, Moore said.

These programs can include cultural, recreational and educational activities. However, social programs and events with admission charges are not eligible for University funds, Moore said. Neither are events involving lobbying, electioneering or religious conversion.

UW-Madison has a similar student-group funding system called the Student Services Finance Committee. The committee allocates funds to student resource centers, such as their student union and campus health center, and to registered student organizations, said John Lucas, UW-Madison spokesman.

Groups at both universities said they meet to discuss requests for funding on a case-by-base basis, especially when the requests include issues that walk the line between the right to free speech and the separation of church and state.

While the Roman Catholic Foundation’s requests for funding of training camps, retreats and Lenten books were all denied, Moore said he can only be sure SORF would deny funding for one of those items.

“SORF does not fund retreats,” Moore said. “Not based on the content of the retreat, but based on the concept that retreats are usually exclusive to group members and not open for others to attend, and that the leadership center offers retreats for free.”

Moore said SORF does support the cost of certain camps and of printing newsletters and other publications, no matter what viewpoint they present. The purpose of camps and publications has to be educational and not related to religious conversion for them to be eligible for funding.

Activities involving worship, religious proselytizing or religious instruction also fail to meet UW-Madison’s criteria for University funding, Gallagher said.

But the judge’s preliminary decision in the Roman Catholic Foundation’s lawsuit has temporarily stopped UW-Madison from making funding policy decisions, Gallagher said.

Until the trial in June, UW-Madison must give the Foundation its $39,000 for printing costs, camps and retreats.

Lucas said he does not know whether the ruling in this case will affect other universities’ policies on religious student group funding. At this point, SORF and fee allocating groups at other schools are free to follow their own policies.

Despite SORF’s regulations about the funding of conversion activities, religious groups feel the University administration allows them enough freedom to operate.

“It’s always been a pretty religious campus,” said Scott Beatty, campus staff minister for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. “The campus has been open and welcoming to religious organizations, and the administration has been positive in allowing students to live out their religious beliefs and faith.”