Religious Liberty Vindicated Across University of Wisconsin System

March 14, 2006

MADISON, Wis., March 14, 2006—On Friday afternoon, the University of Wisconsin’s (UW’s) Board of Regents voted to protect religious liberty and freedom of expression on every UW campus. After six months of public pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the Regents finally approved a policy that allows resident assistants (RAs) to lead Bible studies or any other meetings in their own dorm rooms.

“UW’s decision to uphold religious liberty and freedom of expression is of national significance,” stated FIRE Interim President Greg Lukianoff. “The ‘Bible study ban’ was unfair, unconstitutional, and highly unpopular.”

The Bible study controversy began at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC), where on July 26, 2005, a university administrator sent Christian RAs a letter ordering them to stop leading Bible studies in their dormitories. Administrators banned all voluntary studies of the Bible, Koran, and Torah that took place in the RAs’ own rooms or anywhere in their own dormitories. The officials believed that holding such studies would make RAs less “approachable” to students who did not share their religion. FIRE subsequently discovered that UW-Madison, the system’s flagship campus, enforced a similar ban.

In October 2005, FIRE launched a campaign to abolish the unjust “Bible study ban.” FIRE asked UWEC Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson to lift the ban on October 10 and took UWEC’s repression public on November 2. This led to outcry from USA Today, newspapers across the Midwest, Fox News Channel, countless radio programs, and several Wisconsin legislators. Under pressure, UWEC suspended its ban on November 30 pending a system-wide review.

FIRE weighed in on that review process by writing to UW System President Kevin P. Reilly and to Wisconsin Attorney General Peggy A. Lautenschlager in defense of expressive rights on campus. FIRE also connected Lance Steiger, the RA who bravely protested the ban, with attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), who filed a lawsuit on his behalf.

After six months of constant coverage, the Board of Regents put an end to the controversy on Friday when it approved a policy that gave RAs the right to “participate in, organize, and lead any meetings or other activities, within their rooms, floors or residence halls, or anywhere else on campus, to the same extent as other students.”

“UW’s choice to uphold First Amendment rights should serve as an example for state universities across the United States,” said Lukianoff. “FIRE continually encounters immoral and unconstitutional limitations to students’ religious liberty and freedom of expression, and has for years fought for students’ right to associate freely, without interference from intrusive university administrators.”

The extent of the national threat to religious liberty was revealed by a survey conducted by FIRE in 2003. When 1,037 students and 306 administrators questioned at more than 300 colleges nationwide were asked to name any First Amendment right, only 30 percent of students and 21 percent of administrators named freedom of religion. Lukianoff noted that “given this general lack of knowledge about basic religious rights, it is no wonder that universities habitually trample on the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment.”

Every year, FIRE struggles against the tendency of colleges and universities to deny religious organizations the freedom to govern themselves according to their own religious principles. This tendency threatens religious groups’ freedom of association, a right that secular groups generally enjoy. Recently, FIRE reported that California State University San Bernardino (CSUSB) denied recognition to the Christian Student Association (CSA), whose constitution had requirements governing members’ “faith” and “sexual morality.” In accordance with a California State University System policy, CSUSB deemed CSA’s requirements “not permissible” because they would exclude homosexual and non-Christian students. In spite of a legal challenge filed by the ADF, CSUSB is standing by its policies and continues to deny CSA official recognition.

“In cases like that of CSUSB, we see students denied their right to govern themselves as their consciences dictate,” said Lukianoff. “College Democrat groups should not be forced to admit Republicans, just as gay and lesbian advocacy groups do not have to admit people who believe homosexuality is sinful. Religious groups have the same interest in determining their own membership.”

FIRE has won important victories for freedom of association at colleges and universities across the United States. In April 2005, FIRE convinced the Milwaukee School of Engineering to grant full recognition to the ReJOYce in Jesus Campus Fellowship student group, which had previously been denied recognition because the student government claimed the group’s Standards of Personal Conduct “discriminated” on the basis of “sexual preference.” Similarly, in May 2005, Princeton University yielded to FIRE’s request that it recognize Princeton Faith and Action on an equal basis with other student associations. Princeton also pledged to re-examine a policy that unfairly singles out religious student organizations for additional and exceptional scrutiny. FIRE pursued and won a similar case at Tufts University in 2000.

In 2004, FIRE intervened at Ohio State University (OSU) on behalf of a broad interfaith coalition of Muslim and Christian student organizations that believed that a mandatory nondiscrimination policy interfered with their First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and free association. In October 2004, OSU surrendered to FIRE and the Christian Legal Society, which had filed a lawsuit against the university, by agreeing to change the nondiscrimination policy so that religious organizations could make decisions based on religious criteria.

In 2003, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill derecognized a Christian fraternity because it refused to adopt a nondiscrimination policy that would prohibit it from considering religion in determining “membership and participation.” FIRE put Alpha Iota Omega (AIO) members in touch with the ADF, which, in March 2005, succeeded in obtaining a preliminary injunction against the application of the nondiscrimination policy to AIO.

In April, 2003, FIRE attacked Rutgers University’s ban on InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship. Rutgers viewed InterVarsity’s rule that “leaders must seek to adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives” as discriminatory. FIRE’s intervention, along with a lawsuit filed by the ADF, restored InterVarsity to operation at Rutgers.

Beginning in October 2003, FIRE successfully campaigned at Purdue University to help the Stewart Cooperative, a Christian women’s housing group, get an exemption from a mandatory “nondiscrimination” policy that would have made voluntary religious association impossible. Purdue, persuaded by FIRE’s arguments, granted the group an exemption in May 2004.

In November 2004, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at Louisiana State University (LSU) contacted FIRE after being denied recognition for a year and a half for refusing to accept limits on its rights to religious liberty and free association. The MSA has existed for 30 years, but a new policy forced the group to revise its constitution to explicitly state that it would not deny membership on the basis of a list of criteria including “religion” and “sexual orientation.” Several letters from FIRE convinced LSU to rescind the requirement that the group include in its constitution the explicit nondiscrimination language prescribed by the university. The group’s rights were restored by March 2005.

Individuals’ religious practice and beliefs also come under frequent attack on today’s college campuses, as the espousal of such beliefs is seen by students’ and professors’ more secular counterparts as “offensive” or “politically incorrect.” At William Paterson University (WPU), 63-year-old student Jihad Daniel was accused of harassment in June 2005, when he replied to a professor’s unsolicited e-mail advertisement of a film about a lesbian relationship by stating his belief that homosexuality was a “perversion.” FIRE pushed WPU to drop the charges against Daniel and to have a letter of reprimand removed from his file. WPU complied with both requests by December 2005.

At Lakeland Community College, students complained that philosophy professor James Tuttle mentioned his Catholic faith too often in class, and administrators reacted by giving him fewer classes to teach. FIRE’s public advocacy on behalf of Professor Tuttle began in February 2004, and he has since filed and settled a lawsuit against Lakeland.

“FIRE has been consistently victorious in defending the rights of individuals to express their religious beliefs and of organizations to govern themselves according to the dictates of their faith,” Lukianoff concluded. “Until college administrators give students and faculty members the right to follow their consciences, FIRE will continue its battle for religious liberty.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve religious liberty on America’s college campuses can be viewed at thefire.org/religiousliberty.

CONTACT:
Greg Lukianoff, Interim President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg_lukianoff@thefire.org

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