Bible study ban prompts question

November 14, 2005

University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly on Monday asked the state attorney general to determine whether it’s unconstitutional for Wisconsin universities to prohibit resident assistants from conducting Bible studies in their dormitories.

His request comes four months after UW-Eau Claire ordered resident assistant Lance Steiger to stop leading Bible discussions in the basement of his dormitory.

Resident assistants at the university receive free room and board and a $675-per-semester stipend in exchange for nurturing and counseling dorm residents.

University officials said that by organizing and leading Bible study in the dormitory, Steiger was placing undue pressure on residents to participate. Officials said he was free to participate in, or lead, the group elsewhere on campus.

A national organization called Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, state legislators and U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.) lambasted the policy, insisting that it violates Steiger’s free-speech rights. Green wrote a letter to Reilly, urging him to “rid the UW System of this deplorable mandate.”

In a letter to Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, Reilly doesn’t support or defend the policy at UW-Eau Claire, which he says is similar to a policy at UW-Madison.

Instead, Reilly says that all schools in the UW System make campus facilities and student funding available to student religious organizations, and that the UW System is committed to state and federal civil rights laws.

Reilly says UW-Eau Claire was clarifying its policy, but given the similarities of policies elsewhere in the UW System, he was seeking Lautenschlager’s advice.

“I am requesting your written opinion as to whether the university’s practice is consistent with First Amendment standards,” Reilly writes.

Kelly Kennedy, a spokesman for Lautenschlager’s office, could not be reached for comment.

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Schools: University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire Cases: University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire: Ban on RAs’ Leading Bible Studies