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Christian club sues Snow College over alleged free speech issues

Published October 23, 2012 11:50 am

Courts • College says "misunderstanding" led to religious groups getting affiliate status.
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An evangelical Christian club claims Snow College is unfairly giving "second tier" status to student groups that have a religious affiliation, constitutionally infringing on free speech and free association rights.

In a complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court, the Solid Rock Christian Club alleges the designation deprives such groups from being able to reserve campus facilities without charge, to advertise events on campus and to receive funding from student fees. That allows the college to favor "the speech of popular groups and exclude unpopular ones," the club alleges.

The lawsuit names the college, top school officials, the school's board of trustees and the state Board of Regents as defendants.

Scott Wyatt, president of Snow College, said Tuesday the lawsuit may be a result of a misunderstanding. He said that after realizing the impact of the affiliate status on religious clubs, "we undid this." Wyatt, who said he just received a copy of the lawsuit and had not yet read it, said it is possible none of the clubs were aware of that course correction.

"The Solid Rock ministry is a very important organization for us," Wyatt said. "They serve a number of students and we value them highly and want to continue to be a support in every way we can of their mission and their goals. I think this lawsuit is largely a misunderstanding and am confident we will work it out in a good manner and everyone will be satisfied. I am just very confident in working through all this.

Solid Rock has operated on the Snow campus, located in Ephraim, for eight years. The complaint describes the club as committed to "exalting and glorifying Jesus Christ on campus" and encouraging students and faculty to believe in Jesus Christ. The club is associated with Tri Grace Ministries, which according to their web site, also is committed to "challenging the heretical doctrines of Mormonism and ... leading as many Mormons as possible into a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ."

With a brief exception during the 2010 school year, the club was able to use facilities without paying a community rental rate, the lawsuit states. It freely advertised activities and received student fee funding. During the 2010 school year, the college designated Solid Rock an "organization," with fewer privileges, but relented after student leaders of the group protested.

The club, one of about 32 at the college, now alleges that over the summer, college officials changed its policies regarding student groups and gave Solid Rock an "affiliate" rather than "club" status that deprived it of those benefits.

According to the current handbook, clubs must not be affiliated with any commercial or for-profit organization or religious institution. An official told the club's advisor that "due to an internal audit, funding will not be allowed for religious organizations."

When the advisor objected that the group was not associated with a church or any other formal religious organization, the official declined to discuss the matter further.

During homecoming activities, when clubs decorate windows of local businesses with themed messages, the school took "instantaneous and aggressive action" to censor the club's display, forcing members to remove its message.

This year's theme was "Then, Now, and Forever." The club received permission to paint a message on the window of a private Main Street business, as well as a business approved by the school. It painted a cross with the words, "The cross covers sin then, now, and forever," on the first business and was working on the restaurant window when they were stopped by the student life office director, who happened to be inside. The student life director said religious symbols and messages weren't allowed.

Other students later washed the display off the window of the first business, the complaint states, although the owner had approved it.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to find that the college's policy and actions violate club members' constitutional rights and to bar the college from enforcing alleged discriminatory policy.

"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," said Travis Barham, litigation staff counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the club. " But we hope they will quickly do the right thing, respect our clients' freedoms, and eliminate the need for continuing to pursue this lawsuit."

brooke@sltrib.com