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Hot on Campus | October 31, 2012

Utah school: Bias policy a big misunderstanding

Religious freedom

Snow College president pledges to reverse new policy that blocked religious clubs from full student group benefits

The Karen H. Hunsman Library at Snow College (Courtesy photo)

The president of a small Utah college facing a lawsuit over discrimination against a Christian club says the whole thing was a big misunderstanding.

Earlier this year, an auditor told administrators at Snow College, a two-year public school in Ephraim, Utah, that state law prevented them from giving money to religious student groups. Fearing they would run afoul of Utah regulations, administrators immediately started changing policies that had previously treated all student groups the same, President Scott Wyatt said.

Before the start of this school year, administrators notified the school's religious groups, including Solid Rock Christian Club, that they could no longer reserve campus facilities for free, advertise meetings and events using materials provided by the Office of Student Life or request student fee funding.

Wyatt said he didn't find out about the changes until they had been implemented and the school was staring down a lawsuit from religious liberty advocate Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). As soon as he realized school officials had made a mistake, he worked to undo the damage, Wyatt said.

"We are a small college in a very conservative area, and we really value these clubs, including Solid Rock," he said. "We just want to do what's right, and we're happy to do it."

But Solid Rock's beef with the school extends beyond its new second class citizen status.

As students prepared for this year's Homecoming celebration, Solid Rock joined other campus groups in registering to decorate the window of a local business in honor of the event. After school officials assigned the club its window, club members picked up paint and supplies from the Office of Student Life (OSL). All of the paintings were supposed to reflect the homecoming theme--now, then and forever.

Solid Rock's design featured a cross and the words "the cross covers sin, now then and forever." As students started to sketch out their painting on the window of Los Amigos, a Mexican restaurant, OSL Director Michelle Brown told them they were not allowed to include any religious symbols in their display. According to the letter sent by ADF lawyer Travis Barham to school officials two days later, Brown told Solid Rock members she would have someone wash off their painting if they didn't do it voluntarily.

In an email to the group's faculty advisor, Brown allegedly said the religious display was "in poor taste."

But by singling out Solid Rock's painting based on its content, Brown violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee against viewpoint discrimination, Barham wrote, quoting from several Supreme Court decisions: "If she finds it offensive, the First Amendment solution is simple: she can avert her eyes. But government cannot cleanse public discourse until it is 'palatable to the most squeamish among us' and this bedrock principle applies with full force to universities for 'the Amendment leaves no room for the operation of a dual standard in the academic community with respect to the content of speech.'"

Barham's letter, sent on Sept. 26, gave school officials one day to respond or face the prospect of a lawsuit. Although he saw the letter, Wyatt said he simply passed it on to the school's lawyers, since it involved a litigation threat. According to an ADF news release, a state assistant attorney general replied on behalf of the college, saying that religious views would continue to be prohibited from the homecoming event.

On Oct. 22, ADF filed suit against the school. But attorneys have not served school officials legal papers in the case, giving them time to reverse their policies. Wyatt does not anticipate the challenge will make it to court, as the school fully intends to restore religious groups' rights on campus: "We just want to work it out. We should have no difficulty in getting to a solution."