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Ratio Christi, a recognized student organization at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has sued the university on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds for denying funds for a religious speaker last semester.

The lawsuit cites ideology-based discrimination in speaker choice on the part of the University Program Council’s Funds Allocation Committee and names each member of the Univesity of Nebraska Board of Regents, NU President Ted Carter, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Laurie Bellows as defendants. The lawsuit also names the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska and University Program Council. 

Ratio Christi is a Christian RSO that “equips university students and faculty to give historical, philosophical, and scientific reasons for following Jesus Christ,” according to its NvolveU homepage.

In January 2021, Ratio Christi requested up to $1,500 from UPC’s Funds Allocation Committee to host a lecture by Robert Audi. Audi is a former philosophy chair and professor at UNL and a current professor at the University of Notre Dame. 

According to the lawsuit, Ratio Christi’s request was denied on the grounds that the event funds through FAC cannot be used to “finance political campaigns or speakers of a political and ideological nature,” according to the policy. FAC was willing to fund the event if there was an additional spokesperson providing an opposing viewpoint, which Ratio Christi declined to do.

UPC also allegedly emailed Ratio Christi explaining it would not fund the event due to “its Christian ideological nature,” the lawsuit states, and they argued it is the council’s “job to make sure that all … ideological perspectives and beliefs are being considered, not just Christianity.”

Ratio Christi states there have been multiple occurrences of speakers that have come to UNL in direct violation of this policy, including speeches on topics like sexual orientation, gender identity, reproductive rights, social justice, police reform and political activism, without providing opposing views. Such speakers include Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the major marriage equality Supreme Court case, Mwende Katwiwa, who the lawsuit described as someone involved in social justice movements, “including Black Lives Matter, reproductive justice and LGBTQ+ advocacy,” and Laverne Cox, a transgender actor.

The claim states the University’s funding for the above events, and not Ratio Christi’s, is viewpoint discrimination and a violation of the rights established in the First and Fourteenth Amendments — guaranteeing freedom of speech and equal protection under the law.

Ratio Christi states this policy “gives University officials unbridled discretion to engage in viewpoint discrimination by failing to set out narrow, objective, and definite standards for the disbursement of student fees for extracurricular speech.”

As a result, each NU regent should know that fees are not allocated in a viewpoint-neutral manner, and they failed to enact standards to correct this, according to the lawsuit.

Regent and gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen released a statement on Oct. 29 detailing how he and his wife have supported the Fellowship of Catholic University Students on numerous campuses for 20 years, including support for the Newman Center at UNL and University of Nebraska Omaha.

“If any students or student groups didn’t have the opportunity to access University Program Council Funds because of religious discrimination, that is unacceptable,” Pillen said in the tweet. “If this allegation is true, then a change must be made immediately.

Deb Fiddelke, UNL’s chief communication and marketing officer, said speakers and events are funded by many sources.

“The Fund Allocation Committee specifically is a student-led process that oversees $10,000 annually, which is a small portion of the funds available from student fees for events,” Fiddelke said. “Ratio Christi has been previously funded for speakers and events from other funding sources.”

A representative of UPC Nebraska declined to comment in a phone call due to the ongoing legal investigation.

Both FAC and UPC Nebraska are student-led organizations, with FAC specifically providing funding for events to help RSOs in need of financial assistance, primarily new RSOs. 

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts also released a statement regarding the lawsuit on Oct. 29, two days after the claim had been filed, urging Green to “step in and define policies to end this kind of discrimination and to send a message that all viewpoints, including Christian values, are welcome.”

“The University of Nebraska-Lincoln should have no problem supporting speakers from a wide variety of viewpoints on campus, including Christian speakers,” Ricketts said. “UNL has previously brought in much more controversial speakers, and Dr. Robert Audi and Ratio Christi should be given the same respect.” 

As far as First Amendment rights go, John Bender, associate dean of and a professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, said the university must provide funding for speakers to come to campus on a “content-neutral basis.”

Bender also said the university may have had a valid reason for denying the funding, but it would have had to be due to something other than not wanting to fund Audi’s specific message.

“It’s possible the refusal of funding is a First Amendment violation,” Bender said in an email. “If the university is denying the funding simply because the speaker holds a particular religious view or because it disagrees with his ideology, that would be a First Amendment issue.”

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