Religious freedom tested in lawsuit against Snow College

School president says the issue is resolved

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 12:42 a.m. MDT

Statues in front of the college namesakes, Lorenzo and Erastus Snow in front of the Karen H. Huntsman Library at Snow College. (Snow College) Statues in front of the college namesakes, Lorenzo and Erastus Snow in front of the Karen H. Huntsman Library at Snow College. (Snow College)

SALT LAKE CITY — A longstanding Christian club at Snow College says a new policy aimed at faith-based groups discriminates against their campus activities and forced them to take down an off-campus homecoming display because it included a religious symbol.

Curious about what recourse they had, Solid Rock Christian Club president Kelsey Reed and vice president Daniel Spencer contacted the Alliance Defending Freedom, a "legal ministry" that advocates for religious liberties.

On Monday, the club filed a federal lawsuit in Salt Lake City, alleging Snow violated its constitutional rights.

"Colleges are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, not centers of censorship,” said Travis Barham, a Georgia-based attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom. The First Amendment, he said, allows like-minded students to gather and to express their ideas, including religious students and religious ideas.

“By refusing to treat faith-based student organizations the same as other student groups and by excluding religious speech from homecoming events, Snow College officials have ignored this basic principle."

But Snow President Scott Wyatt said the lawsuit surprised him because the college reversed its policy within the past couple of weeks.

"I don't know if Solid Rock ministries is aware of that," he said. "I thought we'd resolved all the issues."

Barham said Tuesday that's news to him and Kelsey and Spencer haven't heard anything from the school.

"It would be incumbent upon a university to communicate a policy change to the affected clubs not the other way around," he said.

Club members just want to get back to ministering to the campus and holding activities just like other clubs, Barham said. "They're hoping we can do that without going through a long drawn out legal process."

Wyatt said he hasn't had any conversations with Solid Rock members or their attorneys.

"I just feel like the whole thing is going to be resolved easily because our differences are so minor," he said.

Snow College, located in Ephraim about 120 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, chartered Solid Rock as a campus club for the past eight years. During that time, the club regularly used campus buildings for Bible study meetings without paying the community rental rate, advertised using materials that the Student Life Office made available and obtained student fee funding.

But over the summer, college officials relegated the club to "affiliate" status, which precluded it from the benefits of "club" status. The decision also forced the club to remove a homecoming display on a storefront window due to its use of a religious symbol.

According to the lawsuit, an internal audit led Snow to demote any student organization that was deemed to be associated with a religious organization to affiliate status. In so doing, those groups became ineligible for funding from student fees and using campus facilities without charge.

Rock Solid is not part of a church but is affiliated with Tri-Grace Ministries, an evangelical Christian organization based in Ephraim.

Wyatt said "some audit or some communication to Snow College from Salt Lake,"  apparently based on the Utah Constitution, gave rise to the thought that the school can't give funding to religious clubs or allow them to use its space for free. The state Constitution prohibits public money or property from being appropriated for religious worship, exercise or instruction or for the support of any ecclesiastical establishment.

"As soon as I heard it, I said, 'No, I don't think that's right. These student clubs are paying student fees like everybody else and I believe this use of space is incidental. And that it's OK with both the United States and Utah constitutions and something we should encourage, so we reversed that position," he said.

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."

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