Of Speeches and Sermons

Last week saw another round in the ongoing legal battle between the University of Wisconsin and the Madison campus’ Roman Catholic Foundation. In Roman Catholic Foundation v. Regents, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 72980 (W.D. Wis., September 24, 2008), the court addressed the University’s refusal to allow segregated fees (that portion of a student’s tuition reserved for the funding of student organizations) to be used for certain RCF activities that the University regarded as worship, proselytizing, or sectarian instruction. These activities involved programs such as spiritual counseling, training RCF student leaders, the purchase of a drum shield to be used by the RCF’s praise band, and the printing of instructional pamphlets on praying the Rosary.

District Judge Lynn Adelman of the Eastern District of Wisconsin, sitting by designation, entered a declaratory judgment “stating that the University may not categorically exclude worship, proselytizing or sectarian instruction from segregated fee funding unless it does so pursuant to a rationale that is reasonable in light of the purposes of the forum and viewpoint neutral.”

As far as this goes, it seems to me to be consistent with recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court holding that even highly sectarian religious speech may not be excluded from a public forum if is otherwise within the forum’s purpose.

To exclude religious perspectives on content that the forum otherwise permits is impermissable viewpoint discrimination. In a forthcoming piece in the Mississippi Law Journal, I argue that there is no epistemological basis for distinguishing worship from other forms of discourse.

Judge Adelman may not agree. Although he held that the Regents had not shown that the specific activities of the RCF were outside the purpose of the forum, he suggested that the University could choose to exclude at least certain types of worship because “while worship may technically be within the forum’s broad purposes” the University might conclude that “its value to the forum is less than other forms of expression.” The UW, in his view, could “decline to fund activities involving nothing more than mechanical praise, provided that it does not simultaneously fund secular activities that lack a discussion component.”

This is where we part ways. I argue in the Mississippi piece that worship is unlikely to be devoid of assertions about temporal matters and claims about how our individual and communal lives ought to be lived. While a forum could be defined to require, as Judge Adelman would have it, “back and forth discussion of an idea,” it is unlikely to be. It seems implausible that segregated fees in the UW system are made available only to expressive activities in which all sides participate and each idea expressed is subject to critical examination.

If the point is that worship or sectarian speech is inherently less valuable or may be excluded from the “purpose” of a forum, my view is that, to exclude such speech on that basis, would be prohibited viewpoint discrimination. Judge Adelman disagrees, seeing it as content discrimination–something that the government is permitted to do in limited purpose public forums.

I don’t think so. If worship or sectarian speech provides a perspective on something on which secular perspectives are permitted, then excluding the latter is viewpoint discrimination. Judge Adelman’s suggestion that the University can decide that the latter approach is less valuable is precisely what the Constitution forbids.

The right result but some troubling dicta. It’ll be interesting to see what the next round brings and, given what seems to be ongoing tension between the UW and the RCF, there is likely to be another round.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Will Butler

    This seems to me to be exactly the type of reason that Jesus spoke in parables. If members of the organization just told stories about soldiers and tax collectors and evil brothers, there would be no problem, because this isn’t an overtly religious discourse. Clearly, a secular organization could hold lectures with guest speakers, where there was no speaker-audience discourse.

    If you’ve ever heard a philosopher or theologian lecture, then you know it’s almost impossible to separate discourse about real life and about religion. For some people, you can’t talk about life without talking about God, even if the forum isn’t ostensibly religious. People don’t draw clear lines between what’s religious and what isn’t. (For example, try to find a broadly accepted definition of religion that includes non-theist Buddhism but doesn’t include Packers fans.)

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