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Catholic student group sues U. of Wis. over fees

By The Associated Press
09.17.07

MADISON, Wis. — A Catholic student group sued the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Sept. 10, saying the school was illegally refusing to allow student fees to pay for certain religious activities.

The Roman Catholic Foundation is asking a federal judge to force the university to pay for things like printing Lenten booklets, running Evangelical Catholic training camps and hosting spiritual retreats where students are counseled by priests and nuns.

The university has argued that student fees cannot be used for activities involving prayer, worship and proselytizing because it would violate church-state separation. But the Catholic group says not allowing the funding for its activities amounts to religious discrimination.

The lawsuit is the latest round in a lengthy dispute between the university and the group, which runs programs and services for Catholic students and has a history on campus dating to the 1880s.
The feud has been closely watched by school administrators and religious student groups across the country.

In May, the two sides settled an earlier federal lawsuit. The settlement called for the university to award the group $253,000 in student fees during this school year. In exchange, the student group agreed to establish itself as a separate entity from St. Paul's Catholic Church and not seek funding for religious events like Masses, weddings and funerals.

The lawsuit filed Sept. 10 in U.S. District Court in Madison claims the university is violating the settlement by refusing to fund certain budget items and giving their budget greater scrutiny than other groups.

The lawsuit asks for $39,000 in actual and compensatory damages plus unspecified punitive damages from the university for violating students' right to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

University spokesman John Lucas called the lawsuit baseless, saying the university had treated the group the same as any other religious student organization.

He said the university was trying to balance giving money for student activities against its obligations not to violate the separation of church and state.

"Like the federal government, we are unable to fund inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction or proselytization," he said.

The lawsuit claims that in June, a month after the settlement, university officials started questioning funding for activities they believed were too religious in nature.

Among other things, the university is refusing to pay for Lenten booklets written by students, a retreat where priests and nuns counseled students, and speakers who were paid to lecture on Christian faith and beliefs, the lawsuit claims.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a legal-advocacy group representing the Catholic foundation, said the university was again denying the group funding for activities similar to what other student organizations receive money to support.

"Once again, we are holding the school accountable to ensure that the rights for all Christian groups to exist according to their sincerely held beliefs are preserved," ADF lawyer David French said in a statement.

The group first filed suit last year after UW-Madison said it could no longer be a recognized student group because only three of its 12 board members were students and it violated nondiscrimination policies by limiting membership to Catholics.

U.S. District Judge John Shabaz in March ruled the university's nondiscrimination policy unconstitutional and the university reinstated the group after it added more students to the board.


Update
U. of Wis. must fund prayer, worship activities
Federal judge grants preliminary injunction sought by Roman Catholic student group, saying school's policy of turning down funding requests for such activities violates free speech. 01.18.08

Related

Federal appeals panel OKs university's student-fee distribution system

7th Circuit judges find standards University of Wisconsin uses in distributing grants are sufficient to guarantee that decisions are neutral. 10.02.02

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