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The First Amendment debate surrounding the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire continued Monday, as the UW System continues to try to strike a balance between freedom of expression and the establishment clause.
Early in the day, U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Wis., penned a letter to UW System President Kevin Reilly making clear his desire for the state to hold hearings investigating UW-Eau Claire’s prohibition on resident assistants leading Bible studies.
Later in the afternoon, Reilly sent a letter of his own to Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager requesting her written opinion on whether the policy is consistent with the First Amendment.
“This is what you would really call a conundrum,” UW System spokesperson Doug Bradley said. “Everybody’s opinion and belief needs to be honored, so Kevin has asked the attorney general to give an opinion on this.”
While the UW System has appealed to Lautenschlager for advice, Green continued his public condemnation of the practice as unconstitutional.
“We have a university system that says that it can’t stop professors who have been convicted of crimes from continuing to collect their salary but is happy to stop RAs who decide they’d like to have a Bible study in the privacy of their own room,” Green, a 2006 gubernatorial candidate, said in an interview. “I mean, obviously that’s absurd.”
Green said if the rest of the Legislature has heard as much public outrage over the policy as he has, there is a “good chance” the state will conduct hearings on the policy in the coming weeks.
“I have even heard from colleagues on Capitol Hill [in Washington, DC],” Green said. “I’ll be honest — I’ve been teased by colleagues because this is a rather absurd policy [and] it’s making Wisconsin a target of ridicule.”
State Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, said he agreed with Green that the UW System should have a clear written policy on the subject, and that such a policy should protect the right of students to lead Bible study sessions in their dorm room if they wish.
Black criticized Green, however, for what he calls “grandstanding” on the issue, and characterized his efforts as campaign work rather than an honest effort to find a good solution for students.
“Obviously people like Green would like for political reasons to elevate this to a decisive wedge type issue,” Black said. “I don’t think the university and the students are well-served by someone trying to grandstand on this.”
In addition to requesting Lautenschlager’s legal advice, Reilly reported UW-Eau Claire is in the process of drafting a reformed policy for its own campus.
“Recognizing the importance of the issues involved here, the university has indicated that it will review, clarify and reduce to writing its own RA employment practices during this academic year,” he wrote.
Black shrugged off Green’s call for legislative hearings on the subject, expressing his trust in the UW System to appropriately adjust the policy on its own accord.
“If the university comes up with an unsatisfactory policy then perhaps hearings would be warranted,” he said. “At this point I don’t think they’re necessary [however] … They are more to generate publicity than to generate solutions.”Download file "Green calls for hearing"