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MADISON, Wis. – Republican lawmakers praised a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire resident assistant on Tuesday for speaking out against a school practice prohibiting him from holding Bible studies in his dorm building.
Lance Steiger of Minnesota told lawmakers he was stunned when a school official warned he could face disciplinary action for continuing to have weekly Bible studies in his dorm basement. He said he had never heard of the policy even though he had been a resident assistant for two years and said it was a clear violation of his free speech rights.
“I was obviously shocked,” said Steiger, a senior. “They were telling me and four other people we couldn’t have a Bible study on our own time.”
Steiger spoke to the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee, which held an informational hearing on the policy Tuesday after conservatives complained it infringed on students’ constitutional right to practice religion.
After the outcry, the school suspended enforcement of the policy last month and UW System President Kevin Reilly formed a committee to recommend new guidelines on resident assistants’ behavior. Steiger, backed by the Alliance Defense Fund, filed a federal lawsuit claiming the university violated his civil rights.
Resident assistants receive free room and board and stipends to supervise students on their dorm floors and are considered state employees. UW-Eau Claire said it needed to ban them from holding Bible studies to make sure they encouraged a welcoming environment for fellow students.
Steiger, who continues to have the weekly events, scoffed at the suggestion his Roman Catholic faith made him unapproachable. He said he invited people in his dorm but respected those who declined.
His lawyer, state lawmakers and U.S. Rep. Mark Green said the policy discriminated against people of faith and urged the university to rescind the policy. Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, said resident assistants are free to lead groups supporting diversity, political viewpoints or gay and lesbian students.
“Yet when you want to hold your hands in prayer you are told you cannot,” he said.
Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Kreibich, R-Eau Claire, said Steiger had become an “international celebrity” for speaking out. Steiger said he did so because resident assistants should not have to pick between their jobs and their faith.
Reilly said future policies governing all constitutionally protected forms of speech by resident assistants, including religious and political activities, will be in line with the constitution and uniform across the UW System. UW-Madison is the only other school with a similar policy.
Green, a Republican running for governor and a UW-Eau Claire alum, called the policies unconstitutional and out of step with Wisconsin values.
The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation said the hearing was nothing more than political grandstanding and criticized UW-Eau Claire for “capitulating to the demands of the religious right.”Download file "UW-Eau Claire RA says he was 'shocked' by Bible studies ban"