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Universities require Christian clubs to promote non-Christian views to get funding: lawsuits

Appeals court punished University of Iowa twice this year for similar actions against Christian clubs.

Published: October 28, 2021 3:15pm

Updated: October 30, 2021 11:35pm

Public universities in conservative-leaning states are discriminating against a Christian student apologetics club on the basis of religion and viewpoint, violating their members' constitutional rights, according to two lawsuits filed days apart.

University of Houston Clear Lake (UHCL) policies were invoked to withhold recognition from Ratio Christi unless it allows non-Christians to run for leadership positions, while the University of Nebraska Lincoln (UNL) withheld funding for a Ratio Christi event because it didn't include a non-Christian perspective, the suits allege. Both were filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

Selective applications of nondiscrimination policies to conservative, Christian and pro-life groups have faced particular scrutiny in the federal courts in recent years.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice sanctioned the University of Iowa this year for derecognizing religious groups that violate its "human rights policy" while exempting Greek life, sports teams and racial affinity groups.

Tellingly, the university took action against Christian student groups that required leaders to eschew same-sex relationships while leaving alone a Christian student group that required leaders to support such relationships.

The UHCL lawsuit targets school officials as well as UH system chancellor Rena Khator, all of whom have the authority to "review, approve, or reject" decisions related to Ratio Christi. They all "knew, or should have known," that registered student organization (RSO) policies are discriminatory.

It closely resembles the University of Iowa litigation, claiming UHCL not only recognizes groups that limit leadership eligibility, such as those for foreign students and Palestinian rights activists, but also those that restrict membership by protected categories, including veteran status and sex.

Ratio Christi is allegedly the only group denied RSO status for its leadership requirements: that leaders must "profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" and observe their faith consistently. It has been seeking recognition since July.

RSO status comes with benefits including meeting space, participation in student involvement fairs, and funding covered by mandatory student services fees. Because their club isn't recognized, "Ratio Christi's members are compelled to support ... ideas and philosophies that they oppose" while being denied reciprocal support.

Ratio Christi's application was apparently subject to rules that were invented on the spot to deny it recognition right before a student involvement fair, the suit claims. 

Student involvement coordinator Shelby Kuepker met with club official Ruth Lass Aug. 23 to discuss the faith-based leadership requirement, then emailed the purported RSO rules to Lass the same day. 

The Word file was titled "Ratio Christi.docx," the metadata revealed it was created that day, it's inconsistently formatted, and that version of the rules is still not available two months later on the Student Involvement and Leadership website. 

The club was also banned from editing a nondiscrimination statement required to be in its constitution, to specify it does not prohibit "selecting officers and leaders who agree with and abide by its religious faith," according to the suit.

University officials continued to "string along" the club, with Kuepker misrepresenting the more accommodating rules for religious student groups at the UH flagship campus and falsely claiming she hadn't received Ratio Christi's registration form.

They have ignored "repeated requests for an appeal" and documentation of an apparently nonexistent organization to which Ratio Christi can appeal, the "Student Life Council," the suit claims.

"We are aware of the lawsuit and are in the process of gathering the facts," UH System Associate Vice Chancellor Shawn Lindsey told Just the News in an email Thursday, declining further comment. 

UHCL partially reversed course days after it was sued, granting full recognition to Ratio Christi without changing its "unconstitutional" policies, ADF said Saturday. 

The UNL lawsuit focuses squarely on that university's allegedly discriminatory allocation of mandatory student fees in violation of Supreme Court precedent.

More than $1 million in student fees is allocated to student groups, but the student government keeps more than half and allocates another $280,000 to the University Program Council (UPC), which then earmarks only $10,000 for RSO events that aren't its own. Both are defendants.

RSOs applying for this funding are subject to an unconstitutional "speakers policy" that requires them to "provide reasonable political and ideological balance on subjects of politics and government" when hosting events, the suit claims.

They must "make reasonable attempts to sponsor a different program within the same academic year which generally represents," undefined, "the opposing part of that spectrum." 

UPC denied Ratio Christi's $1,500 request to bring Christian philosopher and University of Notre Dame professor Robert Audi to campus, giving three different explanations. 

It simultaneously claimed "speakers of a political and ideological nature" are banned from funding, and that they can receive funding if "another spokesperson with a different ideological perspective" is included. UPC later flagged the "Christian" elements of the event as the problem.

Whichever UPC policy is correct, it requires UNL to make viewpoint-based decisions for RSO events while exempting UPC and other lavishly funded organizations from either "no ideology allowed" or "counterviewpoint required" rules for student fee-funded events.

These events promote viewpoints on topics including "sexual orientation, 'gender identity,' 'reproductive justice,' social justice, police reform, and political activism," with no opposing views and often in conflict with Ratio Christi's views, the suit claims.

UNL public affairs director Leslie Reed declined to comment on the lawsuit and didn't respond when asked to point Just the News to an official source for its RSO events rules.

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