RA Bible study ban draws FIRE’s ire

November 7, 2005

It never struck senior Lance Steiger as an activity that could lead to disciplinary action; it was just something he was accustomed to doing on a regular basis.

Every Tuesday last academic year, Steiger would take a Bible down to the basement of Horan Hall with some students, and they would look at a chapter or verse from in it and try to apply it to their lives.

Then, while spending the summer back home in Cannon Falls, Minn., a letter from Deborah Newman, an associate director of housing, informed him that if he continued with these actions, he would face disciplinary action from the university.

“The letter was a surprise because there had never been any sort of talk about it before about it being illegal,” Steiger said.

He sent an e-mail to Newman and, when the response remained the same, he contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Now, FIRE, Steiger and university officials are debating the issue, which has gained the attention of area representatives and the national media.

After FIRE, a national non-profit organization, discovered this incident, it sent a letter to Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson, requesting that she end the ban on RAs leading Bible studies in their rooms and residence halls.

Rep. Rob Kreibich, R-Eau Claire, said he currently is consulting the Legislature’s lawyers regarding the legality of the university’s policy, which he said is only an oral one and is not written into any official university policy.

“I’m just concerned. I’d rather see UW-Eau Claire making headlines around the country for the material science program or the nursing program or the education curriculum,” Kreibich said. “I just wish we’d be making national headlines for something other than this.”

Mike Rindo, the executive director of university communications, said Larson called for an “internal review of UW-Eau Claire’s policies and practices.”

“The university is currently gathering information and seeking advice from legal counsel to ensure UW-Eau Claire practices and policies comply with legal standards,” Rindo said. “Information will be shared with the campus community when the review is completed and decisions regarding the policy are made.”

In the July 26 letter to Steiger, Newman also mentioned that the policy to prevent religion and other ideological events, including partisan political activities, came about to make sure RAs were accessible to students at all times when they are in the residence halls.

Senior Craig Espersen, a Horan Hall RA, said he’s surprised this has been made into such a stern policy, especially when it only has been addressed orally to RAs in training; he’s never seen it in writing.

“I understand the reasoning behind the policy, but I don’t agree with the policy,” he said. “I understand they want RAs to be approachable all the time, but residents should be open to new ideas. That’s part of the whole college experience.”

Rindo said, however, that RAs can lead or partake in these activities outside the halls in other campus locations.

“Resident assistants are state employees and have supervisory authority over students in the residence hall in which they live,” he said. “Their room and residence hall is considered their place of employment.”

Junior Jon Smylie, a Governor’s Hall RA, found it odd that the university started coming down on RAs this semester, especially when he’s seen Bible studies in RAs’ rooms in the past, as well as and political stickers.

“This isn’t just about Christians leading a Bible study,” Steiger said. “This is about the First Amendment rights of every single RA being violated. They can’t step into our lives. They can’t say what we do on our own time.”

As for the timetable regarding this incident, Rindo said the university will take as much time as needed to make sure the concern is properly addressed.

“UW-Eau Claire supports the First Amendment rights of all students, faculty and staff,” he said. “But there are some gray areas that exist.”

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