A lawsuit has been filed recently against the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire by two students who allege that the publicly-funded institution has denied them their constitutional rights. The university require all students to complete 30 hours of service-learning to order to earn a diploma. Students have earned the hours by attending lectures on the alleged benefits provided by Planned Parenthood or participating in film festivals touting social justice.
However, the university did not allow the two students any credit for teaching school-aged children about their Catholic faith. Students Alexandra Liebl and Madelyn Rysavy taught aspects of their faith, but also reading skills, some phrases in Latin, and Bible history. They also taught lessons in character building. UW-Eau Claire denied credit for the service work after ruling that it was not service-learning – but rather religious proselytizing.
The university has refused to comment, while the two students have also reserved themselves.
Attorney Travis Barham of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed the lawsuit on the student’s behalf, declared in a news release that “no public university should ever use a community service program as a vehicle to advance and instill anti-religious bias.”
Barham said that the university policy violates the principles of religious freedom because it favors non-religious practices to religious ones. “If the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire wants to require its students to perform community service, it must treat all forms of community service as equally valuable,” Barham stated. “The Constitution and federal court precedent prohibit it from targeting religious community service and denying students credit for it. That kind of animosity toward and discrimination against religion is unconstitutional.”
The university service-learning policy “is intended to provide students with an opportunity to serve their community, apply knowledge gained in the classroom, enhance their critical thinking skills and become informed, active, and responsible citizens,” according to its website.
The University’s Service Learning Guidebook notes “acceptance of a service-learning proposal indicates that the proposal is acceptable for meeting the service-learning requirement; it does not imply endorsement either of the proposed activities or of the recipient by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.” In addition, it says, “Service-Learning proposals involving cooperation with faith-based organizations may be accepted; however, this public university will not award credit for time spent directly involved in promoting religious doctrine, proselytizing, or worship.”
“This is raw favoritism of non-religious ‘beliefs, preferences, and values’ over religious ones, and that’s not constitutional,” Barham stated. “The university prohibits students from receiving service-learning credit for activities that involve religious instruction, persuasion, and recruitment, but it awards credit—and even encourages students to seek credit—for activities that involve the same forms of expression from a non-religious perspective. But the First Amendment prohibits government officials from preferring some viewpoints while exiling, denigrating, or targeting others.”
According to the statement from the Alliance Defending Freedom, “Although the Service-Learning Policy explains that 'students’ sincerely held beliefs, preferences, and values will be reasonably accommodated in accepting service-learning proposals' and that 'acceptance of a service-learning proposal…does not imply endorsement either of the proposed activities or of the recipient by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire,' the policy nonetheless unconstitutionally singles out religious beliefs, preferences, and values for exclusion by specifying that “this public university will not award credit for time spent directly involved in promoting religious doctrine, proselytizing, or worship.”
Attorneys Michael Anderson and Bryan Hough with Axley Brynelson, LLP, are serving as local counsel for the two students in the case, Liebl v. Schmidt.
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