University should let RAs show their faith

November 10, 2005

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has given the state’s Christian conservatives a legitimate cause about which to be indignant and outraged.

School officials are reviewing their employment policies after clamping down on several dormitory resident assistants who had been leading private, voluntary Bible studies in their own rooms. RAs typically are students paid by the university to oversee dorms.

Deborah Newman, associate director for housing and residence life, sent a letter to the RAs that said if the studies continued, students might not find them “approachable” or might fear they’d be “judged or pushed in a direction that does not work for them,” according to an Associated Press report.

Newman added that resident assistants who persist in holding Bible studies would face disciplinary action.

That is, indeed, outrageous. And UW-Eau Claire should reverse its decision immediately.

But let’s not sell this issue as a religious right vs. secular left one.

This is a constitutional and fairness issue. The university’s action ought to offend anyone who believes in the Bill of Rights’ First Amendment, which guarantees American citizens freedom of religion, speech, the press and peaceful assembly and the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

UW-Eau Claire is a government institution, and as such, it has no business regulating the religious practices of its RAs unless those employees are infringing on others’ rights.

That’s not the case here, as long as the RAs have not mandated attendance at the Bible studies or attempted to evangelize in the course of their official duties.

The university letter prompted U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a Republican candidate for Wisconsin governor, to write a scathing letter to the interim chancellor.

“This mandate is misguided, illegal and a clear affront to these students’ religious liberty,” Green, a school alumnus, said in the letter.

Another UW-Eau Claire graduate, Republican state Rep. Scott Suder, joined in on the action.

“This is yet another tragic episode in a long saga of disappointments with the UW,” Suder said.

Granted, that’s a bit over the top. The UW System is a shining star for the state, not a disappointment.

But it is tragic for an institution built on the free expression of ideas to show such intolerance toward religious worship.

One wonders if UW-Eau Claire officials similarly would instruct RAs never to express their political views – even in private conversations in their own rooms. That would be shameful, too, in a society that if anything needs more people to show an interest in politics.

And the last thing the university should do is attempt to shelter students from encountering a belief system that “does not work for them,” especially one that has such a powerful influence on the world in which they live.

Another consequence of the policy is that it plays right into the hands of people who accuse colleges and universities of a decidedly anti-religious and anti-conservative slant.

That might not be true, but this particular policy is certainly anti-First Amendment.

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