With the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire facing a federal lawsuit over alleged religious discrimination, the president of the state’s university system this month will develop a system-wide policy regarding student employees who lead Bible studies on campus.
Lance Steiger, a Christian and a resident assistant (RA) at one of the university’s dormitories, filed his federal lawsuit against the school in November, charging that the ban on dormitory-based Bible study violated his free expression of religion. The University of Wisconsin-Eu Claire (UWEC) has suspended that ban pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
University System President Kevin Reilly announced on Dec. 13 the formation of an advisory group to examine “the appropriate level of involvement of RAs in leading and organizing activities for students who live in the residence halls.” Reilly said he hopes to create a policy that “protects individual employee rights … while assuring a living environment that is free of undue pressure.”
In a letter to Reilly on Jan. 6, the free speech group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), argued that the Bible study ban “constituted unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination against students who wish to express religious viewpoints rather than secular ones.”
Greg Lukianoff, interim president of FIRE, wrote that, “neither UWEC nor the UW System as a whole are in any way required to have such a ban by the U.S. Constitution or by concerns about religious tolerance.” He argued that an RA’s room is his or her home and that “while he or she has work duties to perform from there, he or she also has a private sphere of activity that should not be regulated by the state.”
FIRE, which also launched the original public relations campaign against the Bible study ban, is supporting Steiger, as is the Alliance Defense Fund, in Steiger’s lawsuit against UWEC.
Reilly has previously declined to comment on the lawsuit and calls to his office requesting comment on a possible system-wide policy were not returned Wednesday.
Deborah Newman, the university’s associate director of housing and resident life in July wrote a cease-and-desist letter to resident assistants who had been leading Bible studies, noting that the university had “a fair number of students in each of our halls who do not practice Christianity.
“It is very important to us that these students feel that they can turn to you in a crisis,” Newman wrote the RAs.
The resident assistants are students who are compensated by the school, usually with free room and board at dormitories, for serving as a liaison between students and the administration. Newman stated that “since we provide your room for you and we have a strong desire to make sure RAs are accessible to all residents, we have developed this policy.
Newman suggested that if a student’s RA leads a dormitory-based Bible study, the student might “feel judged or pushed in a direction that does not work for them.” She added that she “would have the same concern if an RA were holding studies of the Koran or Torah as well in their room.”