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Court OKs UWS-Christian Fellowship settlement

MADISON -- A federal court settlement approved Wednesday finalized the temporary victory InterVarsity Christian Fellowship won last year when its recognition was reinstated at the University of Wisconsin Superior.

MADISON -- A federal court settlement approved Wednesday finalized the temporary victory InterVarsity Christian Fellowship won last year when its recognition was reinstated at the University of Wisconsin Superior.

To settle the lawsuit IVCF brought last fall, UW Regents agreed to pay $20,000 toward the fellowship's attorney fees, provide $1,564 the group would have received this year had the UW-S student senate officially recognized the local chapter, and accept bylaws that require fellowship leaders to follow the basis of faith and purpose.

UWS Biology Professor Ralph Seelke, advisor to the campus IVCF group said the case was about principle, not money.

"I think it's a win for us and a win for free speech," he said. It could also lead to a change in the way student organization constitutions are written.

IVCF has been affiliated with the UW-Superior campus since the 1940s and received funding from student fees until 2005. The university, however, dropped official recognition of the organization in November 2005 after finding its leadership requirements were contrary to UW's anti-discrimination policy. The policy supports equal access to all student activities regardless of gender, race, marital status, religion, color, creed and abilities, among other characteristics.

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While membership is open to all students, the group's leaders choose their successors from members who affirm fellowship doctrine. The doctrine espouses belief in God, accepts the authority of the Bible and Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

The purpose of the group would be impaired without officers who are held to the standards of the doctrine, according to documents IVCF filed in court. Its attorneys told UW officials that failure to grant the group official recognition violated its First Amendment rights of freedom of association, speech and exercise of religion.

It should be "self-evident" that a group based on an ideology or belief system would want leaders who agree with it, Seelke said.

When the UW declined to change its policy, the IVCF sued. A preliminary injunction issued by District Judge John Shabaz in November enjoined the UW from enforcing rules that would prohibit the IVCF from selecting its leaders based on their dedication to the organization's mission.

Regents then modified the UW System's anti-discrimination policy regarding expression of religion among student organizations, and the suit proceeded toward settling legal costs and restoring funding the group would have received.

"Basically I think it's going to be good for all organizations on campus," Seelke said of the policy change.

"What I expect because of this change, next year to see many student organizations restrict their leadership," he said, and have constitutions that are more honest.

Some people may call limiting those in a leadership role to members who agree with the group's ideology or beliefs discrimination, Seelke said, but it's not. It just doesn't make sense for a group of college Republicans to have a Democrat as a leader or for a non-Christian to be in a leadership role with a Christian organization, he said.

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UW-Superior Chancellor Julius Erlenbach, who was a defendant in the suit, declined to comment.

(Telegram Staff Writer Maria Lockwood contributed to this story)

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