Group sues U about religious separation

Ryan Dionne

A Wisconsin-based group that promotes the separation of church and state has sued the University and the Minnesota Faith Health Consortium.

Last month, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and seven Minnesota residents accused the University of violating a portion of the First Amendment.

The amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the government from establishing an official religion or favoring one religion over another.

“I don’t think there is anything more important than upholding the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment,” said Annie Gaylor, Freedom from Religion Foundation co-president.

The foundation alleges the University is promoting spiritual healing through the Minnesota Faith Health Consortium.

The consortium is made up of Fairview Health Services, Luther Seminary and the University’s Academic Health Center, according to its Web site.

Its mission is to combine spirituality and faith with health care to ensure people have access to both.

The University wants to see if it can come to a compromise with the suing group, said Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel.

“The University wants to interact with the broadest variety of health-care providers,” Rotenberg said.

That includes providers who practice spiritual healing, he said, but the University also understands the law.

“We have to be vigilant to protect the separation of church and state,” Rotenberg said.

He said balancing those two principles is difficult, but biology senior Keely Dulmage said she thinks the University has found a balance.

Because the University allows various religious and nonreligious groups on campus, she said, everyone is served.

Most of the First Amendment lawsuits involving the University revolve around freedom of speech, Rotenberg said; very few focus on religion.

This case and one filed by Maranatha Christian Fellowship are the two biggest First Amendment religion cases Rotenberg has seen in the 13 years he has been general counsel, he said.

The fellowship’s suit was settled last year after the group sued the University because it felt signing a mandatory Equal Opportunity Statement violated its rights.

Rotenberg said that in many cases, settling a suit saves a lot of money, but this case is more about principle.

“In this case, there isn’t a lot of money at stake,” he said.

The University is often caught between two opposing viewpoints, Rotenberg said, and there will always be unhappy people.

“We are often buffeted from both sides,” he said.

Rotenberg said there is pull from both sides in more than religious cases.

It happens in athletics regarding recruiting and admissions regarding University access for Minnesota residents or becoming a top research institution, he said.

Rotenberg said the case is in its early stages and its outcome is unknown, but Gaylor said she feels confident.

“I think that we will get a fair reading from (the judge),” she said.

In October, the Freedom from Religion Foundation won a similar lawsuit in Montana and has brought suits against other faith-associated groups, she said.