David v. Goliath

By on November 19, 2005

Lance Steiger has had a lot on his mind recently.

In the past week, the UW-Eau Claire senior finance student took three exams and wrote a paper.

And to top it all off, he’s also the resident assistant caught in the middle of a national debate surrounding the university’s rule prohibiting RAs from leading Bible study sessions in their dorm rooms.

Steiger said he loves his school and his job, but felt he needed to question the policy when he first learned of it this summer.

“This isn’t just a Christian Bible study issue,” Steiger said Friday morning seated in his Governors Hall room. “This is a First Amendment issue that affects all RAs.”

Although his decision to challenge the policy means he’s spent a good portion of his senior year fielding questions from the press while looking for answers himself, Steiger doesn’t regret taking a stand.

“It’s very important to me,” he said. “I think they crossed the line.”

Steiger has led an all-male Bible study on campus since his sophomore year in 2003-04. In January 2004, he became an RA while continuing to discuss Scripture passages in the basement of his dormitory with other Christian students on a weekly basis.

University officials say the school has a longstanding oral policy that prohibits RAs from organizing or leading any religious activities, political gatherings or sales party events in their dorm rooms or the residence halls where they have “supervisory authority” over other students. RAs can lead these events at other campus locations, they say.

But Steiger contends the first time he heard of any Bible study ban was in July, when he received a letter from Deborah Newman, associate director of housing and residence life, stating RAs were not allowed to lead Bible study in their rooms. Three or four other RAs who had led Bible study sessions in the previous school year also received the letter. It stated the rule prevented residents from feeling “judged or pushed in a direction that does not work for them.”

Because his Bible study group met in the basement of his dormitory, the letter did not initially concern Steiger. To be sure he was complying with policy, the RA wrote an e-mail to Newman.

Her reply, on Sept. 22, surprised and upset him.

“I would prefer that RAs not lead Bible studies in the hall in general,” Newman wrote, later noting, “As an RA you need to be available to your residents both in reality and from their perspective.”

The 21-year-old said he continued to lead the Bible study in the basement of Governors Hall because no one directly told him his actions went against the rules. A preference, he said, is not a policy. In October, Steiger contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based organization currently lobbying against the UW-Eau Claire policy.

Steiger learned about FIRE from his grandfather and contacted the organization for advice on how to proceed. The RA, who enjoys his job and likes to lead Bible study, wanted to be able to continue to take part in both activities.

Religion has been a guiding force in Steiger’s life since his teenage years.

“I grew up just kind of going to church once in a while,” he said. “I first heard the Gospel when I was about 14. That’s when I first put my trust in God.”

“When I came to college I did the party scene for about a semester,” he said. “But then I really started to apply my faith.”

Steiger said leading a Bible study allows him to “help people in their walk.”

“It’s just a bunch of guys that are interested in growing,” he said. “And I kind of get to be the one that shows them things from Scripture.”

The Canon Falls, Minn., native said he understands the university’s arguments, but he doesn’t think leading a Bible study group on his own time makes him unapproachable.

“I definitely see the University’s point of view,” he said. “But I think it’s discrimination.”

Steiger said he isn’t trying to press his religious views on anyone, including the 28 students in his wing. He has never sent e-mails or posted signs urging his residents to attend his Bible study, Steiger said.

According to Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson, the school’s policy is being reviewed internally and externally. On Monday, UW System President Kevin Reilly requested a written opinion on the matter from state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager. In the meantime, officials are supporting the oral policy, but investigating the rule’s legality, Larson said.

“We want to make sure that the practices — should we move forward and put something in writing — are consistent,” she said. “This is a very complex issue.”

Larson said she wasn’t surprised the school’s Bible study debate has garnered national attention.

“(This is) something that individuals are very tuned into,” she said. “The reason we see the amount of coverage is that this topic really goes to the heart of every person’s underlying fundamental values.”

Larson said she looks forward to settling the issue.

And that’s one area where Steiger and the university see eye-to-eye.

“I thought this would have been resolved by now,” he said, shaking his head. “I hope it is soon.”

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Schools: University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire