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RAs, students share mixed feelings

November 10, 2005

It came as a surprise for senior Mike Palumbo when he heard about the policy forbidding RAs from leading religious, political or ideological activities in their rooms and residence halls.

Palumbo, a Sutherland resident who attends Christian Bible studies regularly, said while he understands the university’s concern, he doesn’t believe it is acting fairly in regards to an RA’s rights.’

“There’s no one RA that can please everyone on the floor,” Palumbo said. “Being a Bible study leader, I’ve never heard anyone on the floor saying, ‘Oh, my stupid RA. He’s a Bible study leader.’ ”

Senior Dawn Snyder, however, believes the policy is in the best interest of the residents. If RAs were allowed to lead these activities in their rooms or halls, it could create an unfriendly environment for some residents, Snyder, an RA in Oakridge Hall, said.

“I know if I had a resident who had an abortion, if I was leading a Bible study in my room, I know they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to me about it,” Snyder said. “People are just forgetting that there’s that side of it too.”

Since the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to the university on Oct. 10 questioning this policy, the topic has garnered mixed opinions on campus.

The issue began on July 26 when senior RA Lance Steiger received a letter from Deborah Newman, associate director of Housing and Residence Life, stating he couldn’t lead a Bible study in his room or residence hall.

Steiger contacted FIRE after his dialogue with the university didn’t improve, he said. After UW-Eau Claire received FIRE’s letter, university officials began reviewing and analyzing the policy. The university has not officially responded to FIRE’s letter, said Robert Shibley, a FIRE program manager.

Shibley said RAs, while being state-employed, still have their own individual rights when they are off duty.

“RAs are students too,” Shibley said. “In their own private homes, in their own dorm rooms, they should be able to express themselves and engage in religious activities on the same basis as other students.”

Mike Rindo, executive director of university communications, said, “RAs are state employees who have supervisory authority over other students.” They also receive free room and board, and a $675 per semester stipend.

While the policy prevents them from leading these activities in their room or hall, they still can lead them at other campus locations, Rindo said.

The policy, which Rindo said has been in place for years, is not a written policy. It is, however, presented to RAs orally during training. After the university finishes their review, they plan to clarify this policy in writing, he said.

Associate history professor Selika Ducksworth-Lawton said this issue puts both parties in a difficult position. For the university, if RAs are using their authority to press their religion on someone, then the policy applies. The RAs, however, also have the right to practice their religion in a non-cohesive manner.

“It is a hard balancing act and nobody’s going to get exactly what they want,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “Nobody’s going to be very happy with what they do.”

For sophomore Sutherland resident Abby Dombeck, an RA who has a different belief than her own wouldn’t make her feel uncomfortable; it would give her more of a reason to approach that person, she said.

“I think it would have the adverse affect,” she said. “It would give me more reason to talk to them and find out more about it.”

James Tubbs, associate professor of political science, said the tough issue involving this case is whether Steiger was using his authority to get people to attend his study or if he was simply practicing his beliefs with those who freely chose to participate.

He said this wouldn’t be an Establishment Clause issue, but rather a Free Exercise Clause issue, which states individuals have the right to freely practice their own religion.

The university will continue its review in consultation with UW System legal counsel, Rindo said, until they can reach a proper conclusion on the issue.

“There should be no rush to judgement,” he said. “It is important that we have the chance to gather all the necessary information, analyze it, review it … and only then reach conclusions.”

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