University denies religious freedom

November 3, 2005

By Charles Parsons at The Badger Herald

Recently the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has banned resident assistants from organizing and leading bible study groups in their dorm rooms. In a letter sent to a RA in July, Associate Director of Housing and Residence Life Deborah Newman justified her decision by explaining that “we have a fair number of students … who do not practice Christianity, as well as some Christians who may follow a different doctrine … It is very important to us that these students still feel that they can turn to you in a crisis, for information and hopefully that they would not feel judged or pushed in a direction that does not work for them.”

When RA Lance Steiger asked further questions via e-mail, he received a reply in September that “[a]s an RA you need to be available to your residents both in reality and from their perspective.”

Despite the questionable nature of Ms. Newman’s underlying logic — that religious students are judgmental and unable to make a distinction between their RA duties and their personal activities, and that differing religious views makes residents uncomfortable — the decision to ban RAs from holding bible studies in their rooms clearly goes against the school’s own belief that RAs are students first and as such enjoy all the benefits of being students, including freedom of religion and expression.

As an isolated occurrence, this may come across as just a questionable decision by a UW-Eau Claire administrator. But this is not an isolated occurrence. Last year the Student Senate approved a measure to deny funding to student activities that promote a “particular ideological, religious, or partisan viewpoint,” while the University Senate approved changes to their Service-Learning guidelines to allow partisan political projects but continued the ban on projects that promote religious doctrine.

It is perplexing that with increased attention to diversity within the UW System, UW-Eau Claire would choose to implement policies that effectively cramp diversity of opinion, ideas and thought. As a school that is not particularly ethnically or racially diverse, UW-Eau Claire should be encouraging as much diversity of thought as they possibly can.

But the contradictory and bizarre decisions by UW-Eau Claire officials are just systematic of a larger problem at universities around the country. Administrators, faculty and students are just unsure how to handle ideology on campus.

On one hand, the classroom should be as free from an ideological bend as possible. On the other hand, true diversity includes intellectual and ideological as well as racial, ethnic and cultural diversity. Plus, there’s that pesky First Amendment.

Some campuses, in the name of political correctness, have instituted speech codes designed to protect students at the expense of the free exchange of ideas and belief, such as Texas Tech University.

Others have allowed a right or left leaning bias to creep in and guide the policies of their administration, such as the School of Education at Washington State University.

But here in Madison, we seem to have to taken a more hands-on approach. The landmark Southworth decision that governs the distribution of student segregated fees stems from a campus-wide debate over the appropriateness of using student fees to fund ideologically-driven organizations.

Yet, since the Supreme Court ruled on Southworth, this campus has fallen into a state of apathy when it comes to issues of intellectual and ideological diversity. Violations of viewpoint neutrality from SSFC have gone unchallenged by the vast majority of the student body. Instances of bias have crept into both the classroom and administration policy. Minority opinions and clearly protected speech has been shouted down by more prominent campus voices.

Yet, with the national debate focused so close to home, perhaps it is time for this university to re-engage the debate. Diversity is good, varied and nuanced opinions are good and a vibrant intellectual atmosphere can only benefit us all. Raise your voice. Speak up. Let’s see what comes of it.

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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