Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, guaranteeing our right to believe—or not—as we see fit. That right to believe (and to act on those beliefs, as long as we are not harming third parties) enjoys powerful First Amendment protection.
That protection, however, does not mean that dissatisfied persons can file lawsuits in order to force the government into adopting policies that favor their personal religious beliefs.
But that is exactly what is happening in a recent lawsuit brought by two University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students.
Alexandra Liebl and Madelyn Rysavy, who are Catholic, allege in the Nov. 10 lawsuit that the school violated their constitutional right to religious freedom by refusing to give credit for their service hours at a local Roman Catholic church.
UW-Eau Claire requires its students to complete 30 hours of service in order to graduate. Its Service-Learning Policy states that work with faith-based organizations can fulfill this requirement, but that as a public university, UW-Eau Claire won’t “award credit for time spent directly involved in promoting religious doctrine, proselytizing, or worship.”
Under the policy, students could get credit for working at a church-run soup kitchen but not for teaching Sunday School. This strikes a sensible balance.
Nevertheless, Liebl volunteered at a second-grade religious-education class in a church and then sought to use those hours to satisfy her graduation requirement. That, of course, fell under the explicit “promoting religious doctrine” restriction in the policy, and the school denied her request. Rysavy, who has yet to submit her service hours, volunteered at the same church’s Sunday School classes.
This type of community service benefits everybody, but Sunday School teaching only benefits some.
The two are represented by the Religious Right group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). “This is raw favoritism of non-religious ‘beliefs, preferences, and values’ over religious ones, and that’s not constitutional,” Travis Barham, legal counsel for the ADF, said in a statement.
But Barham overlooks a salient fact: If the university really favored non-religious beliefs over religious, why does it allow students to volunteer with faith-based groups for charity work?
The university has decided that it wants to promote community service—not the proselytizing of religion. The school has in no way restricted Liebl and Rysavy’s ability to teach religious doctrine on their own time. It simply doesn’t award credit for it. That’s not “animosity toward and discrimination against religion,” as Barham argues. That’s the university adopting a policy that Liebl, Rysavy, and ADF just happen to disagree with.
Whether or not the university could give credit for purely religious work if it wanted to may present a serious constitutional question. The case that ADF has brought does not. Saying that Liebl and Rysavy have a constitutional right to demand college credit for teaching Sunday School isn’t religious freedom. It’s asking a public university to support and reward them for their religious activities.
Real religious freedom is important—and Americans United is the first to step in to defend our fundamental right to believe, or not, as we choose. But ADF’s view is just wrong.