By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland's highest court on Wednesday blocked efforts to ban a state-funded Islamic-focused academic center at a Swiss university, ruling that an anti-immigration political party's proposed local referendum on it was discriminatory.
The University of Fribourg's Swiss Center for Islam and Society opened in early 2015 to advance public discourse about Islam in Swiss society, but the Swiss People's Party (SVP) almost immediately launched its bid to ban it.
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The center is part of the university's theology department and gets funding form Switzerland's federal education, research and innovation department.
In March this year, Fribourg's regional parliament declared the SVP initiative invalid, prompting the party to appeal.
In Wednesday's ruling, four members of the Swiss Federal Tribunal's five-judge panel in Lausanne backed the local government decision, concluding the initiative to hold a referendum on it in the region illegally singled out one religion.
"The initiative cannot be considered constitutional since its title and text are explicitly and exclusively directed at Islam," the tribunal said in a statement.
While the SVP makes up nearly 30 percent of the Swiss national legislature in Berne, the right-wing party's representation in the canton of Fribourg's parliament is only about half that.
About 85 percent of residents of Fribourg, the birthplace of Gruyere cheese, are either Catholic or Protestant, with only a fraction Muslim.
Across Switzerland, two-thirds of 8.3 million residents identify as Christians. But the nation has been wrestling with the role of Islam as its Muslim population has risen to 5 percent with the arrival of immigrants from former Yugoslavia.
In 2009, a nationwide vote backed a constitutional ban on new minarets.
While the Islamic center does not offer a formal curriculum to train imams, University of Fribourg President Astrid Epiney said some Muslim religious leaders did take part in classes or training sessions there.
"With the questions raised by the initiative about the center now resolved, the center will be able to continue its activities on a more certain legal foundation," Epiney told Reuters following the ruling.
(Reporting by John Miller)