UWEC Bible study provokes controversy

January 25, 2006

An orally-communicated policy at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UWEC) sparked national discussion last semester when senior UWEC resident assistant (RA) Lance Steiger refused to cease hosting Bible studies in his dorm’s basement. The university’s controversial reaction provides the opportunity to examine Ripon College’s own stance on such behavior.

UWEC’s policy prohibits RA’s from organizing or leading religious, partisan and other ideological activities or “sales-party” events in their dormitories, including their own rooms. The idea behind the rule is that such activities would theoretically discourage residents from approaching their RA’s because of their respective faiths.

At Ripon, RA’s are allowed to participate in and lead as many activities as they wish, as long as students do not feel coerced into participating in their RA’s extra curriculars.

Sophomore RA Adam Hetz doubles as a Campus Christian Fellowship (CCF) leader and will hold small group Bible studies in his room this semester.

He feels his residents will suffer no long-term reluctance in approaching him, but rather view it as a time of temporary inaccessibility.

He continues by saying that he would love to see his residents come to CCF or his small group meetings, but he would not make it a floor activity.

“I think a liberal arts education by its very nature is exploration of ideas, and we want to encourage [RA's] to pursue those ideas,” says Ogle, “[RA's] are not robots and they’re not blank slates. They are very much young adults just trying to figure things out.”

He goes on to say that as a private institution the college is not stuck with the same set of circumstances as a state school.

Professor of Religion Brian Smith, however, believes the policy is justifiable. “If state teachers cannot lead a prayer in a classroom, then how can an RA in a dorm room?” he says.

Not all agree with the university’s policy.

“They say it’s separation of church and state, but it’s different if you’re working nine to five in the state office in Madison,” says senior RA Joe Fontaine. “If he wasn’t mandating [the meeting] as a floor activity, I don’t see how it should have any bearing on his position as an RA.”

According to the UWEC newspaper, Steiger stressed that he informed his superiors of his intentions during his interview, and that he never pushed the meetings onto anyone.

According to the same source, Steiger received a letter from an assistant director of residence life, Deborah Newman, last July which stated that he would face “disciplinary action” if he continued the Bible studies.

Steiger told the AP that he was stunned when he received the letter because though he had been on staff for two years, he had never heard of such a policy.

Interim Chancellor Vicky Lord Larson received a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Oct. 17 which cited the school’s actions as an unlawful infrigement of First Amendment rights.The organization requested that UWEC immediately end the ban on Bible studies.

State Attorney General Peggy Lautenschlager declined requests to comment on the issue.

The policy was suspended Nov. 29 based on consistent confusion and lack of communication revealed among RA’s regarding the unwritten policy.

Lawyers from the Alliance Defense Fund have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against UWEC.

According to the AP, Steiger says he decided to sue because RA’s should not have to choose between their faith and their job.

Senior ADF Legal Council Kevin Theroit says that their lawsuit will proceed until it’s clear that the constitutional rights of students will be respected, and that it shouldn’t take a committee to decide whether to respect the First Amendment rights of students.

While such an incident hasn’t occured on campus, faculty stress the importance of an open mind.

“What RA’s do as people and what RA’s do as RA’s are two different things,” says Director of Residence Life Josh De War. “As part of attending a liberal arts school, we hope that residents benefit from all the programs RA’s do whether they be about spirituality, academics or otherwise.”

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