Student Fees and Faith At Issue in High Court

WASHINGTON—Should a Christian student be forced to finance campus organizations that advocate abortion or celebrate homosexuality?

That is precisely what Scott South-worth and others like him say they have been forced to do in order to attend and graduate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Southworth petitioned the university for a $7.99 refund for the portion of his student fees that support such groups which he insists conflict with his religious faith.

After the university refused a refund, Southworth and other students filed suit in 1996. A federal trial judge and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled in favor of the students.

Southworth is now a lawyer and an aide to a state senator. His case, South-worth vs. Board of Regents, was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court Nov. 9. A ruling in expected sometime in the spring.

It is a case that could affect hundreds of thousands of students across the country. The University of Wisconsin has 38,000 students alone.

“We're trying to protect the right of conscience not to force people to support advocacy by private groups,” said Jordan Lorence, who argued the case before the Supreme Court on Nov. 9.

University officials contend that the fee system is a necessary and appropriate way to foster lively debate on campus.

“Our position,” said Pat Brady, who is a lawyer for the university but did not try the case, “is to establish a forum of free speech to stimulate free speech as much as possible and that this requires a continuation of the fee system.”

Brady's position is not unique to secular schools. “This is the same thing we're running up against in the Catholic universities, that we have to hear all these different viewpoints,” observed Patrick Reilly, executive director of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to promoting Catholic identity in Catholic universities.

“Is funding these types of groups fundamental to the university's mission?” Reilly asked.

Yes, it is, if Catholics and other Christians want their own message heard on secular campuses said Richard Garnett, a Supreme Court observer who teaches law at Notre Dame.

“I think there's grounds to create a vibrant educational atmosphere,” contended Garnett. “It's important to have this forum.”

Garnett is worried that if the students win, it will also defund campus organizations and newspapers dedicated to evangelizing Christianity.

The best strategy, Garnett suggested, is not to defund the feminists or the homosexuals but to create alternative organizations of your own.

“If you don't like what they're saying, start your own group,” said Garnett.

He noted that there was no evidence that religious or conservative groups were not receiving money from the University of Wisconsin.

If a Christian group had requested funding and the university refused to fund it, the court would side with the Christians, according to Garnett. He cited a previous court ruling, Rosenberger vs. University of Virginia in which the university was ordered to give money to a religious newspaper that had been denied equal funding.

“That was important for religious freedom,” Garnett told the Register, “because the Supreme Court said it's not an establishment of religion because it's funded through this fee mechanism.”

Reilly, of the Newman Society, said that the financing of ideological groups will always be a thorny issue.

“You can't fund every point of view,” he said. “The best thing a university can do is to refrain from supporting any particular point of view.”

The students assert that just as the court has protected the right of union members not to have their membership dues support political activity, it should also protect their right not to support the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual Center, the Young Feminist Task-force, and the International Socialist Center.

University of Wisconsin attorney Brady said of Southworth, “He's trying to analogize this situation with a union or bar association. But he's not being compelled to speak or to join.”

Whereas it is easier to attribute the ideas that a union endorses with the views of an individual union member, Brady said, no reasonable person would attribute the ideas of “all student organizations to any one student.”

Lorence, the attorney for the plaintiffs, is upbeat about the case, insisting that the First Amendment is clear on this one: “The Supreme Court has said you have the right to speak or not to speak.”

While Reilly, of the Newman Society, is sympathetic to the students, he believes that the Court will not rule in their favor.

“My feeling is that the court won't support the students because of the issue brought up by the university where students could protest about research grants being used for things that they disagree with,” he said.

Garnett said he hoped that the court rejects the case made by Southworth and his fellow students.

“It's important for these students’ claim to be rejected as unconstitutional,” Garnett contended. “If they were accepted, that would be a powerful tool against school vouchers.

“They would argue, ‘I don't want my tax dollars going to religious schools.’ It's not a perfect analogy, but it's a good one.”

Reilly maintained that the university could solve this problem while respecting the rights of Southworth.

“The university should provide an equal forum and make sure it's available to everyone,” he suggested. “It should allow free association. Anyone can decide to get together and form a group and fund it as they see fit.”