Two students are suing a Wisconsin university for denying them mandatory community service credits for work they did with a local church. The university claims their service projects violate a policy excluding hours that involve certain religious activities. The students, who filed a lawsuit in federal court on Nov. 17, argue the policy is viewpoint discrimination and unconstitutional.
In April, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire told student Alexandra Liebl that the 30 hours she spent working in a second-grade religious education classroom at a local Roman Catholic church would not fulfill a school-wide community service requirement. Liebl had two options: do 30 more hours with another organization or fail to graduate.
Another student, Madelyn Rysavy, had accumulated 24 volunteer hours at the same church when she heard about Liebl’s denial and realized her hours would not count either. The university policy says students may select community service activities that suit their beliefs, preferences, and values, but bans students from receiving credit for anything it deems “time spent directly involved in promoting religious doctrine, proselytizing, or worship.” Although the church’s religious education director told Liebl the hours would be accepted, the university’s program coordinator refused.
Liebl and Rysavy, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), argue the policy unfairly discriminates against religious forms of instruction, persuasion, and recruitment but accepts, and even encourages, non-religious forms of the same activities.
“This is raw favoritism of non-religious ‘beliefs, preferences, and values’ over religious ones, and that’s not constitutional,” said Travis Barham, an ADF attorney. “No public university should ever use a community service program as a vehicle to advance and instill anti-religious bias. 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.”
Liebl and Rysavy’s complaint includes a list of acceptable non-religious activities provided by the university, including camp counseling, tutoring, working with a political campaign, and working with a cultural awareness program. But if any of these are done from a religious perspective, the university instead tags it with the “nasty word of proselytizing,” Barham said.
Liebl is not the first University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire student to face denial. In 2015, the university refused to accept hours a student spent volunteering as a lead singer in a local church choir. When the student noted her hours would qualify if they were with a non-religious community choir, the coordinator did not disagree, but still denied the student’s request.
“The University of Wisconsin should be, of all schools in the country, most keenly aware that there is no justification for this kind of policy,” Barham said.
In 2010, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that a University of Wisconsin-Madison policy refusing to grant student fee funding to religious student organizations was unconstitutional. ADF argued on behalf of the student organization in that case as well.