Opinion sought on Bible study

November 15, 2005

UW System officials asked the attorney general Monday for her opinion on whether a UW-Eau Claire policy that bans resident assistants from leading Bible studies in their dorm rooms is constitutional.

The policy has prompted sharp criticism of the university, and UW System spokesman Doug Bradley said officials feel a sense of urgency to settle the matter.

Kelly Kennedy, a spokesman for Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, said her office received the request late Monday and had not had a chance to review it.

“This is something we need to have the chief legal mind in the state let us know what’s right,” Bradley said.

UW-Eau Claire resident assistant Lance Steiger, who challenged the policy, said he was happy to see the System seek Lautenschlager’s opinion. But he said a lawsuit is possible if the school doesn’t change its policy.

“It’s a good sign that the university is taking a second look at their policy,” Steiger said. “It shows me that they want to do the right thing. What I hope comes from it is they will see having a Bible study is free speech.”

UW System President Kevin Reilly wrote in a letter to Lautenschlager that UW-Eau Claire has banned resident assistants from leading, recruiting or organizing students in their dorm rooms for activities such as partisan politics, religious studies or sales parties.

RAs are free to lead those activities elsewhere on campus and also may participate in their dormitories so long as they are not in their rooms.

Reilly wrote that the UW System has no uniform policy on the subject, and practices vary among institutions.

UW-Madison’s house fellow manual includes restrictions on leading and organizing activities within the residence halls where they work as a condition of employment.

Reilly asked Lautenschlager to review complaints that the practice interferes with resident assistants’ First Amendment right to freedom of religion. He wrote that UW-Eau Claire plans to review, clarify and put into writing its own resident assistant employment practices before the end of the school year.

The Rev. Rolf Nestingen, president of the Chippewa Valley Evangelical Ministerial Association, said students are being robbed of their rights.

“It’s this politically correct stuff gone to seed,” he said. “It’s just absurd that the university would take a position against freedom of assembly.”

University Senate member Kent Syverson said UW-Eau Claire leaders are being closed minded.

“This is another example of the university not being able to tolerate alternative viewpoints on campus,” he said.

Syverson, a geology professor, criticized the University Senate in May when it voted that student community service wouldn’t count toward graduation if it was inherently religious.

Steiger said he now leads Bible study classes in the basement of his dormitory, but the situation is not ideal.

The controversy began after UW-Eau Claire sent a letter in July to several resident assistants who had led Bible studies. The letter said if the studies continued, students might not find the resident assistants “approachable,” and those who persisted in holding Bible studies would face disciplinary action.

Steiger then contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia. The group sent a letter to the school Oct. 10, asking the school to end the ban and tell the students they were no longer prohibited from conducting Bible studies.

The Leader-Telegram contributed to this article.

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