The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has agreed to eliminate its unconstitutional policy, which kept two students from using hours they served at a local church to fulfill their “service-learning” requirement to graduate. And it has given our clients the credit they deserve for this community service.
In this instance, students at UW-Eau Claire are required to complete 30 hours of community service in order to be eligible for graduation. Students have many service options in completing this requirement.
But there is one option that they did not have: completing community service at a local church. This is because the university prohibited students from receiving credit for “time spent directly involved in promoting religious doctrine, proselytizing, or worship.”
So when one of our clients attempted to get credit for her service helping to teach a second-grade religious education class at a local Catholic church, a UW official told her she could not get that credit because of this policy. This official went on to say that “[a]ny religious instruction is considered ‘promoting religious doctrine.’”
This was a blatant attempt by the university to ban religion from the public square. The university is clear that it does not endorse the activities or the organizations in which students choose to serve, yet it went out of its way to keep students from receiving any credit for “time spent directly involved in promoting religious doctrine, proselytizing, or worship.”
Given that a recent study estimated “the fair market value of goods and services provided by religious organizations” and “businesses with religious roots” at over $1 trillion annually in the United States, it’s hard to claim that community service done through a church or a religious organization does not count.
But there’s a larger problem here.
It is unconstitutional for university officials to decide which viewpoints are acceptable on campus.
The Seventh Circuit confirmed this in one of our other cases against the University of Wisconsin System, a case that involved an almost identical policy: Badger Catholic v. Walsh. There, UW-Madison funded all sorts of student group events, but it prohibited religious groups from getting funds for any events that involved “prayer, worship, or proselytizing.” The Seventh Circuit ruled that this violated the First Amendment. At last, UW-Eau Claire realized that the same principle applies to its campus as well.
Thankfully, UW-Eau Claire is taking the necessary steps to restore First Amendment protections on campus. Let’s hope the University of Wisconsin System has learned its lesson.
“Faith-based service plays a vital and irreplaceable role in our communities,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “We commend the university for acknowledging that it cannot apply a double standard in evaluating which students should receive credit in this mandatory program. If it wants to require its students to perform community service, it must treat all forms of it as equally valuable. The Constitution prohibits public officials from targeting religious community service and treating it less favorably than other kinds. Community service—whether it’s religious or not—is still community service.”