In a fantastic development for religious liberty and freedom of association on campus, the Education Committee of the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents yesterday approved a new policy governing activities by RAs that would acknowledge that they have the same right to lead or participate in Bible studies or any other group activities as other students (search for the words “Education Committee” in the preceding link). FIRE has been leading the charge since last November to force UW to protect all students’ rights equally, and it now looks like the end of UW’s repressive policies is at hand.
The policy approved by the Education Committee is everything that FIRE has been asking for:
Resident Assistants are expected to work with student residents to create an open, inclusive, and supportive residential community. At the same time, because RAs are students themselves, they are encouraged to participate in campus activities and organizations. As such, RAs may 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. However, they may not use their positions to pressure, coerce, or inappropriately influence student residents to attend or participate.
FIRE never asked for special rights for religious RAs, or that their activities be treated as more important than, for instance, the golf club or the College Democrats. What FIRE did insist upon was that religious students be treated equally with their more secular peers. Students should never be punished because their interests lie with issues of the religious rather than the temporal, and to single out religious activity as being something that could make RA’s less “approachable,” as the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire (UWEC) did, is particularly offensive in both a constitutional and moral sense.
The full Board of Regents is expected to vote today on the proposal, and while indications are that it will be approved, nothing is guaranteed until it happens. In the meantime, though, FIRE would also like to express its appreciation to some of the other organizations and individuals who have helped to make this possible. Alliance Defense Fund attorney Kevin Theriot, who is representing UWEC RA Lance Steiger in his lawsuit against the university over the old policy, helped immeasurably by adding legal pressure to FIRE’s already intense public pressure on the university. U.S. Representative Mark Green of the Eighth District of Wisconsin also spoke out loudly and consistently on the issue. And a great deal of the credit must go to the Wisconsin media, both mainstream and campus, for their consistent interest in the issue (see the great column by Katherine Kersten or the supportive editorials we have been reading lately). These folks, along with FIRE’s indomitable supporters who wrote, called, and faxed UW with their comments, are the sunlight that makes the best disinfectant.