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Every Tuesday last school year, Lance Steiger took a Bible to the basement of his dormitory at UW-Eau Claire and led a small group of friends in a discussion about a particular chapter or verse.
Steiger, a resident assistant and a junior at the time, said he was never told he could not lead a Bible study in the dorm where he worked helping students adjust to college classes and campus life.
But in July, he got a letter from school administrators warning him that if he continued to hold Bible studies in his dorm this year, he would face disciplinary action.
The issue has spawned a flurry of heated exchanges between Steiger, school officials, civil liberties groups, and at least one U.S. representative who on Thursday called the university’s position “outrageous and un-American.”
Essentially state employees
“R.A.s are free to engage in these activities as long as they are not doing it in an environment where they have supervisory roles over other students,” Rindo said.
In a Sept. 22 e-mail to Steiger, Deborah Newman, associate director of housing and residence life, elaborated on the university’s position.
“As a state employee, you and I have a responsibility to make sure we are providing an environment that does not put undue pressure on any member of our halls in terms of religion, political parties, etc.,” Newman wrote. “As a ‘leader’ of a Bible study, one of the roles is to gather and encourage people to attend. These two roles have a strong possibility to conflict in your hall.”
The university’s position is backed by a similar written policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is supported by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison.
“There’s free speech, but this isn’t free,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. “This amounts to taxpayer subsidy of worship.”
Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said his organization is looking into the issue. Ahmuty agreed with the university’s position that state employees should not be organizing religious or political events on work time or place.
“The function of the R.A. is almost like a big brother or big sister,” Ahmuty said. “When they’re in the dorm they’re an R.A. 24/7. . . . This isn’t like a jail situation where students have no other alternative. They can go off campus.”
Only a handful of the school’s 120 resident assistants have been hosting Bible studies in the dorms, Rindo said. Steiger said he knows of more than 10 who either hold a class in their room or elsewhere in dorms.
The school’s policy, which also applies to political and ideological activities, is communicated to new resident assistants during a verbal orientation and is not in writing, Rindo said.
Steiger sees the ban as an infringement on his First Amendment rights.
“I work for the school. It’s my job, but I do have personal time. I should be able to talk about whatever I want to talk about in my own room. It’s my home. It’s where I live.”
Steiger sought help with his cause from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization that defends freedom of speech, religious liberty and other rights.
The organization sent a letter Oct. 10 to UW-Eau Claire’s interim chancellor, Vicki Lord Larson, calling the ban on R.A.-led Bible studies unlawful and an “immoral restriction of religious liberty.”
“Unless they’re on the clock 168 hours a week, which they’re not, they have dual capacity as do all state employees,” said David French, president of the foundation. “They have private lives. . . . We’re not talking about Bible studies as part of an official R.A. function. We’re talking about on their own time a function that is completely optional.”
The issue caught the attention Thursday of U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R-Green Bay), a UW-Eau Claire alumnus.
Green wrote a letter to UW System president Kevin Reilly urging him to investigate policies at other University of Wisconsin campuses and to “rid the UW system of this deplorable mandate.”
“The question is are we going to follow them when they go to bars? Are we going to conduct room-to-room searches to make sure nobody is praying?” Green said in an interview. “They do not surrender their Constitutional rights just because they’re R.A.’s.”
UW-Eau Claire officials said they are examining past and current policies and will respond to Steiger’s complaint in the coming weeks.