God and Man in Wisconsin

By November 2, 2005

From today’s FIRE press release:

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.”

While they were at it, UWEC has banned any possible RA-led Koran and Torah studies too, presumably with the hope that the closer the university got to banning 100 percent of all possible holy book studies, the more constitutional that ban would be. Friendly to freedom, this is not. However, it’s a different story when, as an RA, you want to advocate a system of beliefs that’s not religious. Again, from our press release:

FIRE also pointed out a 2004 article in UWEC’s student newspaper in which the Office of Housing and Residence Life [the same folks who banned Bible study] 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.”

FIRE tried to get an answer out of UWEC Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson as to why UWEC has this double standard and why its administrators feel that it’s appropriate in the first place to squelch the private expression of its students, but so far UWEC hasn’t seen fit to answer us.

If UWEC administrators think they can defend what they are doing, why not respond to our letter? Maybe because the Constitution isn’t going to be a big help to them. After all, the First Amendment doesn’t contain an exception for peaceful religious practices that might make people uncomfortable. But you don’t have to take my word for it. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh is covering this story on his blog. An excerpt of his thoughts on the matter:

FIRE is quite right here, both as a matter of academic freedom and of First Amendment rights, and the university is quite wrong. It’s possible that the university might be able to insist that its RAs engage in no ideological group meetings at all in their dorm rooms, though even that would likely be unconstitutional. But to let them engage in a wide range of ideological speech, but singling out religious speech for special burden, is pretty clearly unconstitutional (under the Free Speech Clause, see Rosenberger v. Rector, and in my view under the Free Exercise Clause as well, McDaniel v. Paty).

Professor Volokh hits the nail right on the head. The entire post, which features his analysis on the university’s reasoning for the ban, is worth reading. Head on over to the Volokh Conspiracy to read more.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire