UW–Eau Claire to religious students: ‘Your service doesn’t count’

Two students sue over policy that restricts required community service to non-religious activities
Thursday, November 10, 2016

Attorney sound bite:  Travis Barham

MADISON, Wis. – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday on behalf of two students at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire who are being denied credit for mandatory community service simply because their activities involved religion. Under the policy, a student can, for example, earn credit for teaching unless the teaching involves religious instruction, or singing in a choir unless the choir is religious.

“No public university should ever use a community service program as a vehicle to advance and instill anti-religious bias,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “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. 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.”

In the spring, student Alexandra Liebl sought to obtain service-learning credit for the 30 hours she spent volunteering with a second-grade religious education class at a local Roman Catholic church. University officials denied her request, citing the university’s Service-Learning Policy. Upon hearing of this decision and others like it, another student, Madelyn Rysavy, realized that she would not receive credit for the approximately 24 hours she spent volunteering in the same church’s Sunday School classes; therefore, she has yet to submit those hours for credit but would like to have them approved.

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.”

“This is raw favoritism of non-religious ‘beliefs, preferences, and values’ over religious ones, and that’s not constitutional,” Barham explained. “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.”

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.
 
  • Pronunciation guide: Barham (BEHR’-um)

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
 
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