Religious freedom tested in lawsuit against Snow College

School president says the issue is resolved

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 23 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Wyatt, a former Cache County attorney, said he also conferred with the Utah Attorney General's Office in making the decision.

The lawsuit contends Solid Rock's free speech rights were violated during a Snow College homecoming activity this fall.

As part of the school's "Paint the Town" event, student organizations decorated windows of participating, off-campus businesses with the theme "Then, now, and forever." Rock Solid decided to paint a cross with the words, "The cross covers sin then, now, and forever."

When club members began to paint the college-assigned window of a Mexican restaurant, Snow's student life director told them religious symbols were not permitted.

"Snow College is a public school, not a private school. And therefore, you are not allowed to paint anything religion-oriented on the business window," according to the lawsuit. Instead, she announced, “You can only paint school-spirited themes."

Later, college officials removed the students’ message from another building, telling them in an email that their Christian message “is in poor taste.”

Alliance Defending Freedom sent Snow a letter in September stating that the school violated club members' constitutionally protected freedoms. It said the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly rejected universities' efforts to discriminate against religious speech by excluding it from such forums.

A state assistant attorney general replied on behalf of the college, saying that religious views would continue to be prohibited from the homecoming event.

The lawsuit states that Snow treated Solid Rock differently than other student groups "by censoring its members' speech due to its religious content and viewpoint, and by allocating student organization funds without any criteria or standards."

Most public universities and colleges "got the message" about students' religious liberties after two "bedrock" U.S. Supreme Court rulings the past 30 years, said Kim Colby, a senior counsel with the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom.

"This is really absurd in this day and age for a public university to be doing this," she said.

"The U.S. Supreme Court said (the Utah Constitution) doesn't matter," Colby said. "These students have federal free speech rights that can't be overridden by the state Constitution."

Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project, said the Supreme Court's "line of equal treatment decisions" are signaling to government that when it's dealing with a variety of groups, both religious and secular, to treat them in the same way.

"You don't fund religion. But if it's a something like a student fee that's divided up between a variety of groups that have different view points, don't discriminate against those groups that have religious viewpoints," he said. "That's not considered direct funding of religion as far as I understand what the court is saying."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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