Have RAs Surrendered Their Religious Rights?

By on November 10, 2005

FIRE’s case at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC), where Christian RAs have been told that they may not lead Bible studies in their own dorm rooms or dorms, has captured a great deal of attention in the national media, including syndicated columnist Suzanne Fields’ latest. Condemnation of UWEC has generally been widespread, and for very good reason. However, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and MSNBC.com have run a story including quotes from two organizations that suggest that FIRE is barking up the wrong tree here and that RAs, as state employees, ought to be prohibited from having Bible studies in their dorm rooms. Let’s take a look at this article and examine their arguments.

The university forbids resident assistants from hosting religious or political activities in the dorms where they work to ensure that R.A.’s are accessible to all students, said spokesman Mike Rindo. Resident assistants are essentially state employees. They receive free room and board and a $675-per-semester stipend in exchange for nurturing and counseling dorm residents.

Here we learn that RAs are banned from hosting not just religious but political activities in their dorms. This prohibition was not covered in Deborah Newman’s letter to the RAs, and appears nowhere in the RA job description from which UWEC’s language about “accessibility” comes. It seems that Rindo has slapped yet another unwritten prohibition on expression by way of explaining the first one. And this still fails to explain the housing office’s praise last year of an RA who hosted, as an official hall activity, the Vagina Monologues, perhaps the most politically charged and controversial modern play to hit America’s campuses, for three straight years in her dorm.

What does explain Housing’s enthusiastic embrace of the Vagina Monologues? Well, for one thing, the office’s written policy. In the list of “Resident Assistant Duties” supplied to every UWEC RA, section 3A states that RAs have the responsibility “[t]o actively assist in the social, educational, service, recreational, and political programs and activities of the hall.” There is no prohibition of any kind on hosting such activities. Rindo’s statement, which claims to describe an apparently very technical yet unwritten policy, simply doesn’t pass the “smell test.” If these policies are both preexisting and so vital to endure that RAs are “approachable,” why weren’t they written down?

The article continues, revealing that:

The university’s position is backed by a similar written policy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is supported by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison.

“There’s free speech, but this isn’t free,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. “This amounts to taxpayer subsidy of worship.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin also chimes in:

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said his organization is looking into the issue. Ahmuty agreed with the university’s position that state employees should not be organizing religious or political events on work time or place.

“The function of the R.A. is almost like a big brother or big sister,” Ahmuty said. “When they’re in the dorm they’re an R.A. 24/7…. This isn’t like a jail situation where students have no other alternative. They can go off campus.”

Let’s get a handle on what these groups are asserting. There are 168 hours in a week. UWEC, the ACLU of Wisconsin, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation would have you believe that RAs are at work for the state every hour that they are in the dorm. They get free room and board, as well as a $675 a semester stipend. That’s a value of $5618 a year. Assuming a 26-week school year and one weekend off a month, that comes out to an hourly rate of $1.41 an hour. I ask these organizations: is this really the price of liberty? $1.41 an hour, and your right to worship as you please vanishes?

But of course, being an RA really isn’t a full-time job. There’s that one weekend off a month, and the RA job description also specifies that RAs may work ten hours a week doing something else. Indeed, anyone who goes to college knows that being an RA isn’t a full time job. Yet an RA’s room, while provided by the state as compensation for doing the work of an RA (for $1.41 an hour!), is the RA’s home 100 percent of the time. Does your home come with a stipulation that you may not lead a Bible study? No—even if you work for the government. Many state governors live in state-owned mansions. So does the President. Park rangers and housing project custodians often have their homes provided as well. Are they, too, to be banned from leading Bible studies? The ACLU of Wisconsin’s spokesman has suggested that since RAs have the freedom to leave their homes to practice their own religious beliefs, there is no problem. I ask: does this sound like freedom to you?

UWEC has never suggested that these RAs have done one concrete thing to make a nonbeliever, or different Christian believer, feel that they are not “approachable.” Their only offense is their chosen, peaceful, and noncoercive practice of leading Bible studies in their own rooms, whose rent they pay for with their own labor. RAs should be judged on their job performance, not their religion or their politics. To consider those things when determining who is eligible for state employment is a recipe for oppression.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire University of Wisconsin – Madison