EAU CLAIRE, Wis., November 2, 2005—In a shameful attack on freedom of religion, the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC) has banned resident assistants (RAs) from leading Bible studies in their own dormitories. The university claims the ban is necessary because some students might not feel RAs who lead Bible studies are “approachable.”
“As a state university, UWEC has no business forbidding RAs or any other students to engage in religious activities in their own rooms and on their own time,” declared David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has written UWEC to protest the ban.
The controversy began on July 26, when UWEC Associate Director for Housing and Residence Life Deborah Newman sent a letter saying RAs could not lead Bible studies in their dorms at any time. Her reason for this was that students might not think Bible study-leading RAs were sufficiently “approachable.” The letter was sent to RAs who were members of the Student Impact religious group and who had been leading Bible studies—not as official residence hall activities, but in their own dorm rooms and on their own time.
Newman’s letter added that Koran and Torah studies would be similarly prohibited and that RAs who did conduct a Bible study in their dorms would face “disciplinary action.” Shocked by the ban, undergraduate RA Lance Steiger inquired further via e-mail. In a September 22 reply, Newman reiterated the ban and told him, “[a]s an RA you need to be available to your residents both in reality and from their perspective.”
Steiger contacted FIRE, and on October 10, FIRE wrote UWEC Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson to ask her to lift the Bible study ban. FIRE reminded Larson of UWEC’s own acknowledgement that RAs are students first, and that “every university student at a public university such as UWEC enjoys the full panoply of First Amendment rights, including freedom of religion and freedom of expression.”
FIRE also pointed out a 2004 article in UWEC’s student newspaper in which the Office of Housing and Residence Life praised an RA who for three years in a row staged the controversial feminist play The Vagina Monologues as an official “residence hall activity.” This praise came despite the RA’s acknowledgement that “with the Vagina Monologues…she [did not have] as much time as she would have liked for her wing.” UWEC has failed to respond to FIRE’s letter.
“UWEC’s position that leading a Bible study is more likely to make students uncomfortable than leading a controversial play like The Vagina Monologues simply doesn’t hold water,” noted FIRE’s French. He continued, “The First Amendment doesn’t end with a Bible study or with The Vagina Monologues—it guarantees a student’s right to perform both.”
“While RAs have a responsibility to be approachable to students, this cannot extend so far as to bar their own religious or political expression,” added FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “No state institution has a right to demand that others not hold any beliefs or engage in any expression that might possibly be offensive.”
FIRE has expressed concern about the status of constitutional rights at UWEC before. In April, FIRE revealed that UWEC’s Student Senate had forbidden any student-organized activity that promotes a “particular ideological, religious, or partisan viewpoint” from receiving student-fee funding—a policy that directly contradicts the university’s First Amendment obligation to distribute student funds regardless of viewpoint and violates the rights of all UWEC students.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire can be viewed at thefire.org/uwec.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Vicki Lord Larson, Interim Chancellor, University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire: 715-836-2327; firstname.lastname@example.org