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On The Line

How a crucial phone call — and a student’s persistence — reshaped the legal landscape on America’s college campuses

by Chris Potts
 

Sixteen years ago, a new alliance-building legal ministry, then called Alliance Defense Fund, opted to provide legal and financial support for a young law student named Scott Southworth. The ministry referred Southworth to an Allied Attorney named Jordan Lorence, who agreed to represent the student in what seemed, to him, “a pretty interesting case” against the University of Wisconsin (UW).

Eight years and four courts later, that case climaxed in a decision that changed America’s legal landscape and profoundly expanded religious freedom on the nation’s college campuses.

Now, as the ministry that won the Southworth case transitions to a new name and era, that critical turning point offers a glimpse of the extraordinary impact God has allowed Alliance Defending Freedom to have on the lives of individuals and the laws of this country.

Scott Southworth doesn’t remember where he first heard of Alliance Defending Freedom, or how he found the phone number, or what finally nudged him to make the call, that early spring day in 1996. He just remembers feeling alone.

“I was just shaking,” he says, “wondering if I was going to get a response — somebody that would be there to support me — or if I was going to get rebuffed, like I had been rebuffed time and time again at the university. I was one student in this vast sea of Left-wing idealism, trying to assert my rights. I didn’t know where else to turn.

“I remember calling Alliance Defending Freedom and telling them my story and my frustration — not knowing if I’d be able to get any help or if I was even right on the issue. But the voice on the other end of that phone understood, and cared, and wanted my voice to be heard.

They referred me to Jordan Lorence and I got to tell him what was happening. I was so blessed to have somebody first, listen to me, and second, respond by acknowledging that my constitutional rights were being violated.”

“He seemed very surprised that I called him back,” remembers Lorence, who, intrigued by what he heard, flew to Wisconsin to meet Southworth and his family. Both made an impression.

As a student, you had to pay for groups you didn't agree with, while you couldn't support groups you agree with. -- Jordan Lorence

The son and grandson of soldiers, part-Cherokee on his mother’s side, Southworth “grew up in a small town with very Norman Rockwell, traditional values,” Lorence says. “Through his solid family and his Christian faith, he just has a natural activist bent to him. He’s a delightful, pleasant guy — very determined. We had no idea this case would propel us into the stratosphere.”

Like most boys growing up among the tall trees and clear lakes of New Lisbon, 100 miles northwest of Madison, Southworth cheered for the University of Wisconsin and pined for the day he’d find his own place on campus. As a youth, he attended a United Methodist church founded by one of his pre-Civil War ancestors, and carried with him to the university a strong desire to honor the traditional Christian values he’d come to cherish.

Soon, he was majoring in pre-law. “I never aspired to become an attorney,” he says, “but when I began to look at where God was calling me, I recognized that, to make a change in the hearts and minds of people in the public policy arena, law school was where I needed to go.”

As at most public universities, UW students were required to pay a “student fee” that went into a collective fund, from which a student association distributed support for campus clubs and organizations. Southworth began to note, with dismay, what some of those groups were about.

“I became very frustrated that the university was requiring me, as a condition of getting my degree, to pay money to support organizations that I found repugnant,” he says. “Organizations that were engaging in Left-wing radicalism … that violated my religious beliefs on the sanctity of marriage … that hated America and all that it stood for, while I was serving in the military as a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard. I wanted to see my money go to organizations that espoused my Christian [and] political conservative beliefs.” UW officials, though, refused to allow student monies to be distributed to Christian groups on campus.

Southworth’s frustrations with that system grew during his undergraduate years, and by the time he entered law school at the university, he’d found other students who were as bothered as he was. Together, they expressed their concerns to the student association, whose leaders eventually considered either refunding the students’ money or letting them “opt out” of paying the fee at all — but university officials stepped in and rejected both notions. They refused even to negotiate.

“It was really just a very, very oppressive system,” Lorence says. “As a student, you had to pay for groups you didn’t agree with, while you couldn’t support groups you did agree with.”

“We were objecting to paying what was, at the time, less than $13 a semester to fund these radical organizations,” Southworth says, “and it didn’t seem like a big request to ask to be excused from having to pay that particular fee.”

“He wasn’t looking for a fight,” says Alliance Defending Freedom President Alan Sears. “All he was saying was, ‘What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong.’ Here’s a man so concerned about how he uses the financial resources God’s given him that he would risk not graduating over a few hundred dollars. That kind of thinking drives the Left crazy.”

“Once I [saw] that the university didn’t care about my constitutional rights as a student, I had to look elsewhere,” Southworth says. “There’s a time and a place, especially as a Christian, when you need to stand up and do what our founding fathers did, what people throughout history have done, which is to say, ‘Enough is enough. I need to go to court … to take my constitutional rights and ask our justice system to enforce them.’ So I made a call to Alliance Defending Freedom.”

In April, 1996, supported by the ministry, Southworth and two other law-school students asked Lorence to file suit on their behalf against UW. It was a brave choice. In similar circumstances, other universities had refused to let students graduate.

Southworth wasn’t worried about any administrative action, “but the school was very liberal,” he says. Professors could have punished him just by giving him bad grades. The dean warned him that he might even be in physical danger from some who “violently opposed our position.”

The legal opposition was even more unsettling. Groups filing friend-of-the-court briefs for UW included a veritable “Who’s Who” of the Left: Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the AFL-CIO, Lambda Legal Defense, the National Education Association, People for the American Way — all representing millions of dollars in financial support arrayed against Southworth and the fledgling Alliance Defending Freedom.

Sears says that opposition wasn’t surprising. Although, individually, the student fees were small, “tens of millions of dollars” were ultimately at stake for public universities across the country if Southworth and students like him stopped giving their monies — against their will — “to fund things they oppose and that undermine their values.”

“What struck me,” Southworth says, “was the hypocrisy of the Left, that continuously proclaims the ‘rights of the individual’ — and yet when I, as a conservative / evangelical / pro-life / soldier / Christian, stood up to say, ‘My rights are being violated,’ organizations like the ACLU opposed our position and joined ranks against us.

“For the first time, I realized that when one person stands up in a respectful voice and asserts their constitutional rights, they can expect that the Left is going to rise up — because that is a confrontation against their evil agenda.”

The case moved fairly rapidly through the courts, and Lorence soon discovered the practical benefits of representing second-year law students in a civil case.

“They actually did some research for me,” he says. “[We] could interact on legal theory. We were kind of this merry band of guerilla fighters going up against the behemoth of opposition.”

“One of the great things about Alliance Defending Freedom is they expect that plaintiffs will be involved,” Southworth says, “unlike the ‘puppet plaintiffs’ that the ACLU uses. The ministry welcomed, engaged, involved, and listened to us through the entire process.

“So, we were able to go out and gather information about all the places where our student fees were going. We were able to read the briefs Jordan prepared, the filings he was going to submit to the court. We had input. We helped edit documents. It was exciting not only as law students, but as plaintiffs in the case … because at the top of every paper that was filed were our names.”

Name-calling of another kind was a price the plaintiffs paid for standing up for their freedom.

“I was enduring excruciating criticism from the Left,” Southworth says. “I’d been called a skinhead — I was feeling really kind of beat up.” Then, some surprising encouragement arrived.

‘Most Blessed Man on the Planet’

By the time the Seventh Circuit clinched his case as a victory, Southworth’s life had taken some extraordinary new directions. Deployed to Iraq in 2003 with his National Guard unit, he visited the Mother Teresa orphanage in Baghdad, a home for children with physical and cognitive handicaps. Almost immediately, he bonded with a nine-year-old boy named Ala’a.

Ala’a had been found sitting alone on the streets of the city; he had cerebral palsy. Southworth visited him regularly, and when he wasn’t around, Ala’a told the other children that the soldier was his “baba” (daddy), and would soon be taking him to a new home in the United States. Southworth himself hadn’t really bargained for that, until the day he learned Ala’a was going to be moved to a government facility notorious for its terrible staff and facilities. It was a virtual death sentence. Instantly, Southworth turned to one of the nuns and said, “I’ll adopt him.”

“I had no idea what I was actually committing to,” he says, “I just knew it was the right thing to do. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me, but the Holy Spirit speaking for me.” Sent back to the States, Southworth began working with U.S. and Iraqi officials to do “the impossible.”

“The entire thing was a miracle,” he says. “An orphan child with a severe handicap in a war zone becoming the son of a guy commanding a military police company in that war. None of the obstacles were surmountable — but for God. So many miracles happened along the way … I got to see God work in all of His glory through the entire process, and I am the most blessed man on the planet to be Ala’a’s dad.”

Today Ala’a is a freshman in high school, on the honor roll, and Southworth recently adopted Rumen, a special-needs child from Bulgaria.

“[It’s] the most wonderful experience,” Scott says, “a blessing every single day. And I’d give up every other experience in my life to keep this one in place.” ★

“The ministry sent out letters to its supporters,” he says, “and the bottom had a little tear-off sheet where people could write notes of support. They mailed me a stack of about 100 or so. I remember sitting in my little room, reading all these notes, one after another, all these supporters telling me to stand firm, quoting Bible passages.

“I can tell you that was a defining moment for me, because it helped keep me going during a time where it seemed like it was such an arduous task to take on this Goliath.”

In November, 1996 — eight months after the case was filed — a Wisconsin district court ruled in favor of Southworth. The university appealed that decision. In August, 1998, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling. By the time UW appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, Southworth had graduated. He was working as a legislative assistant in the state legislature when word came that the high court would hear the case.

Watch an interview with Scott Southworth, meet his son, Ala’a, and discover how your generous gifts are enabling Alliance Defending Freedom to protect religious liberty for students at our public universities.

“Being able to go and listen to those arguments live, and hearing my name called by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, was one of the greatest honors of my life,” he says. “To watch that court listen to an argument about the constitutional rights of some students at the University of Wisconsin was really an incredible experience.”

After the two earlier wins, “I was riding high,” Lorence says. Even suffering kidney stones two days before arguments didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. “I thought: I’m two for two. At the time, I didn’t realize the Supreme Court reverses lower court decisions two-thirds of the time.”

Southworth’s case was one of those times. In April, 2000, the Court voted 9-0 to remand the case back to the Seventh Circuit … in effect, asking the lower court to rethink its earlier judgment.

At first, it seemed like a stunning defeat.

“Left-wing students and administrators at the university started celebrating almost immediately,” Southworth says, but “the celebrations ended when everybody actually read the decision.” In fact, the justices had essentially ruled that, though students didn’t have a constitutional right to object to paying student fees, they did have the right to insist that the university disperse those fees evenly and fairly. “And that was a major victory.”

That victory hinged, ironically, on an earlier high court decision in another case sponsored by Alliance Defending Freedom: Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, which “struck down a university directive that every group but religious ones could receive money,” Lorence says.

Rosenberger said universities had to distribute money from student fees equally — to every sponsored club on campus — regardless of whether a given club had a religious connotation. In Southworth, the Supreme Court built on that decision by indicating to the lower court that students could only be compelled to pay fees as long as the university distributed those monies equally — to clubs the students did support, as well as clubs they didn’t.

The Seventh Circuit took the hint: in July, 2004, it ruled that if universities failed to disperse monies from student fees equally and fairly, students like Southworth could demand a refund. The decision not only linked Southworth to Rosenberger — it built powerfully on the earlier case’s legacy. Now, both Christian organizations and individual students on any public university campus could hold administrators’ feet to the legal fire — compelling them to give Christian groups the same respect, support, and funding as any other club.

“Together,” Southworth says, “[these two cases] are a very powerful force for Christian students on campuses across the United States — thanks to Alliance Defending Freedom.”

“It’s always interesting how God works,” Sears says. Because of the university’s stubborn resistance, he points out, what might have been an open-and-shut local case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “And out of that, a decision resulted that not only benefited a client, but set a national precedent impacting many thousands of students, on every campus in the country.”

Today, 16 years after that last ditch phone call, Scott Southworth is in his third term as district attorney of Juneau County, Wisconsin. Over his seven years in that office, crime has been cut in half. Juvenile crime has dropped nearly 80 percent — the lowest in the state. He says the case that bears his name continues to cast long shadows across his crowded life.

“I learned the importance, the power one voice can have in our society. Every person has a voice. We should listen. Our cause wasn’t about $13 in student fees. It was about ensuring that Christian students had the same rights on public university campuses as every other student.

“Christians aren’t going to be silent,” Southworth says. “We’re not going to sit by while our rights are trampled. We’re going to stand up … and then other Christians are going to stand up with us and behind us.

“For me it was the kind secretary on the phone when I called Alliance Defending Freedom to ask a question. Now I see [it’s] all the attorneys, all those staff who work diligently every day to help Christians like me change the hearts and minds of people … and change the world. ” ★