The University of Colorado, a state-funded school, cannot interfere with the free exercise of religion. Yet the administration appears to do just that.
Students pay mandatory activity fees to the university. The fees fund organizations arbitrarily recognized by the administration. Because these fees are compelled, the public university has a legal and ethical obligation to distribute the funds without discriminating on a basis of content.
Hundreds of years of American jurisprudence, including recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, tell governments and government-funded institutions they cannot pick winners and losers on a basis of content.
The First Amendment guarantees us the government won’t punish content. It expressly protects activities and words involving the free exercise of religion.
Four UCCS students recently filed a lawsuit in Denver’s U.S. District Court that details refusal by UCCS to recognize their organization, Ratio Christi. The Christian organization “seeks to advance a biblical worldview.”
We get it. The Christian biblical worldview is not fashionable on today’s college campuses, where professors routinely and irrationally blame Christianity for racism and a litany of other social ills.
“By equipping Christian students we believe many students will not only hold onto a faith that they might otherwise abandon, but they will also begin to stand up for Christianity when it comes under fire in the classroom,” the group explains.
The plaintiffs claim the university forces them to fund organizations they don’t care for including Be Fair Be Vegan, Young Democratic Socialists of America and other left-leaning groups they claim are hostile to Christianity. On that basis, they believe it is only fair the university fund their group even if it offends other students.
“Defendants (university officials) have erected a series of hurdles student organizations must clear to access student activity fee funding,” the lawsuit states. “Some of these are explicitly viewpoint-based while others are implicitly so, as they grant university officials unbridled discretion. They have applied both to plaintiffs depriving Ratio Christi of access to these resources and illegally forcing its members to pay into a viewpoint-based student activity fee system.”
One hurdle is the university’s insistence the Christian organization allow atheists, or even those with extreme anti-Christian views, to lead the organization. Ratio Christi allows anyone to join, which means students hostile to the group could organize and elect non-Christian leadership. A Christian organization should have Christian leaders, just as vegans should lead the vegan group and socialists should lead the socialist club.
The plaintiffs have formidable attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom and Denver’s Arrington Law Firm. The alliance seldom chooses losing cases. It recently won the First Amendment case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, eliciting a ruling that shames Colorado government for anti-Christian discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. The alliance won Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against Missouri for denying grant funds to a school because of its religious content.
The alliance won nine cases in the U.S. Supreme Court in the last seven years. Relative to other alliance cases, this one seems easy. UCCS stands to lose.
UCCS and the Colorado Board of Regents should reassess this conflict, recognize the student group and approve a reasonable funding package. We don’t need a federal ruling that admonishes state officials for trashing the First Amendment — again.
The Gazette editorial board
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