Controversy of Biblical proportions

November 29, 2005

The University of Wisconsin System has not fared well this past year in the national spotlight. Last year, UW-Whitewater received a cacophony of criticism for hosting the controversial University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill Another pepper-spray finale to Halloween was covered by CNN, a high profile conservative attacked UW-Madison for being “a willing partner in the degradation of higher education.” Yet, these controversies were not the result of any direct action by the UW System and the powers that be were not responsible for their outcome. But the same can not be said about the brouhaha over the ban against resident assistant-led Bible studies.

The genesis of the Bible study controversy was a July letter from UW-Eau Claire officials to UW-EC resident assistant Lance Steiger informing him that he could no longer lead Bible study sessions in his dorm room. Steiger contacted the legal watchdog group Foundation for Legal Rights in Education, which publicly condemned the UW System’s policy and the controversy began. The policy in question was created, according to UW-EC, to ensure that resident assistants remain “approachable” for all students.

In a follow-up letter to Steiger, UW-EC clarified its reasoning: “As a state employee, [resident assistants] 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 … As a leader of a Bible Study, one of the roles is to gather and encourage people to attend. These roles have a strong possibility to conflict in your hall.” Not surprisingly, conservative commentators have used the policy, which also applies to UW-Madison, as an example of a full-blown offensive against Christianity. Wrote State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, “It appears to be a concerted effort by some in the UW System administration to limit Christian free thought.” Even though accusations of a UW conspiracy against Christ are ridiculous and out of proportion, specific critiques of the policy are not without merit. The UW System is wrong, and further attempts to defend it will only result in an unnecessary black eye for the UW System.

The problem is that the policy violates the healthy principles of the neutrality doctrine. The doctrine of neutrality is the view that government may not discriminate against or in favor of religion. For instance, if Madison passed a law outlawing the door-to-door activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it would have to extend the same restriction against all door-to-door solicitors. Even though UW’s policy does not exclusively bar resident assistants from leading just religious activities, it does not universally apply to all practices that could be considered divisive.

For instance, I know of resident assistants who have sponsored or in the very least “encouraged students to attend” Sex-out-Loud sessions. While I agree with what Sex-out-Loud does, their cavalier approach towards sex education could be disconcerting for some students. Once a resident assistant tells the floor which condom or even lube works the best, they cease to be “approachable” for all students.

Another instance of this occurred when, as conservative pundit Abraham Miller pointed out, a UW-EC resident assistant led and staged the controversial “The Vagina Monologues.” It’s irresponsible and dangerously ideological to say that a resident assistant leading a Bible study is less approachable than a resident assistant leading “a one-hour play obsessed with a woman’s vagina.” If the UW System wished to persist with its ban against resident assistant-led Bible studies, it would have to apply the same ban against anything that could be offensive. Their lives would be very boring.

The solution is to not infringe on resident assistants’ First Amendment rights in the first place. Free Exercise rights could be balanced with the University’s interest in keeping the resident assistants approachable for everyone on the floor. As UW-Madison political science professor Donald Downs recommends, the UW System should allow resident assistants to make a distinction between the times they are acting in an official capacity and when they are not. This could easily be done. Every time a resident assistant wanted to encourage fellow Christians to attend a Bible study or fellow feminists “The Vagina Monologues,” they could make it clear that for the duration of the activity they are not state employees but, rather, John or Jane Q. Public. This would allow resident assistants to enjoy their full First Amendment rights and it would return the UW System to the prudential ground of religious neutrality by the state.

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