Update: University Committee Approves Bible Study Ban

January 19, 2006

A committee formed to examine bans on employee-led Bible studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UWEC) last week recommended that the university system president allow the bans to continue.

In a Jan. 11 report, the committee of administrators and students recommended that University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly allow the university’s campuses to ban student employees from leading Bible studies in their university-funded dormitories.

Reilly formed the group in December after Lance Steiger, a Christian resident assistant (RA) at the Eau Claire campus, filed a federal lawsuit against the school charging that its ban on dormitory-based Bible study violated his free expression of religion.

RAs “can participate in, organize, or lead meetings as long as they don’t use their position to inappropriately influence, pressure, or coerce student residents to attend,” the university report states. It does not explain what inappropriate influence means.

The group’s findings, which Reilly must endorse if they are to become official university policy, state that the university “has the right to establish reasonable restrictions on RA activities” and “the determination of where the meetings may be held has been left to the discretion of the individual institutions.”

If approved by Reilly, the policy would allow the Eau Claire and Madison campuses of the University of Wisconsin to continue enforcing their pre-existing bans on RA-led Bible studies, at least until the Steiger lawsuit is decided.

Greg Lukianoff, interim president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is backing Steiger, said he wasn’t sure why the university committee recommended support for the bans.

“Certainly from where I’m standing it looks like there’s been an awful lot of response to this case,” Lukianoff said, pointing to “an awful lot of angry phone calls and e-mails by regular citizens to the university, but also state political involvement too.”

The case has prompted U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a Wisconsin Republican, to voice his support for Steiger and other religious RAs in a letter to Reilly Jan. 13. “While I am glad the working group did not directly reaffirm the current ban on Bible studies by RAs in their dorm rooms,” Green wrote, “I am extremely disappointed that it fell short of explicitly guaranteeing this Constitutional right.”

Green added, “Any policy that doesn’t specifically affirm the right of RAs to hold private, non-mandatory Bible studies in their room is unacceptable and I urge you to reject it.”

Lukianoff also expressed concern that the UWEC Office of Housing and Residence Life was promoting what he called a double standard because it “likes and endorses … public and official politicized events, but doesn’t seem to want to tolerate private religious expression.”

The UWEC office sponsors a student group called Making Our School an Intercultural Community, which organizes productions of the controversial feminist play, “The Vagina Monologues.”

The student group also organized a presentation of the “Tunnel of Oppression,” an exhibit at campuses nationwide that exposed students to graphic depictions of racial and sexual oppression. Cybercast News Service reported on the University of Maryland’s version of the “Tunnel of Oppression” in May 2005.

Reilly has not announced when he will make a final decision regarding the new policies at the University of Wisconsin. Representatives from his office did not return repeated calls requesting comment for this article. Meanwhile, the website outlining the recommendations welcomes feedback from the public.

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