The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire suspended a practice Wednesday banning resident assistants from leading Bible studies in their dorm rooms after it was slammed by politicians and conservative groups as infringing on religious freedom.
Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson said a campus review found the unwritten policy, which also banned resident assistants from leading political activities and sales events in their rooms, was poorly communicated and inconsistently enforced.
The campus launched its review after a senior resident assistant publicly challenged the policy. The student, Lance Steiger, said he was warned he could face discipline if he continued having Bible studies in his room. He said he was forced to hold the events in the dorm basement instead.
For three weeks, U.S. Rep. Mark Green, state lawmakers and conservative groups attacked the policy as an assault on students’ constitutional right to practice religion.
Larson said the suspension will last until a committee convened by UW System President Reilly makes recommendations on systemwide policies to guide the activities of resident assistants, who get free room and board and are paid stipends to supervise students in dorm rooms. They are considered state employees.
She said the policy, which was meant to stop resident assistants from pressuring students they supervise, had been orally communicated during training but was not in writing. That confused dorm workers, she said.
“Based on what the campus review has found to date and the UW System’s decision to seek a more unified policy, I believe it’s in the best interest of our students that we suspend the practice at this time,” Larson said in a statement.
In an interview, Larson said Steiger and the handful of resident assistants who had been told not to host Bible studies will now be able to do so in their rooms as long as no one complains. She said has not reached any conclusion on the constitutionality of the practice, but said she wished the campus could have discussed the matter without interference from outside groups.
Amid the uproar among conservatives, Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager had declined to issue a legal opinion on the matter last week.
UW-Madison had a similar policy in writing, and policies and practices at other UW campuses vary widely.
Reilly said in a statement Wednesday the system will not enforce policies regarding the outside activities of resident assistants until a committee of student life experts makes recommendations to him. Current policies will be enforced only “if someone complains and the complaint is found to be valid,” UW System spokeswoman Kate Dixon said.
The committee will review resident assistants’ roles, the relationship of their activities to educational experiences and the expectations of them as state employees, Reilly said. He asked the committee to report back with recommendations by January.
“These are complex and serious questions, and I want UW policies in this regard to be consistent and appropriate in every way,” Reilly said in a written statement. “I trust these experts will move quickly in helping us ensure UW policies meet constitutional requirements, and at the same time, advance education and opportunities for students who participate in residence life.”
Reilly’s and Larson’s announcements came hours after state Rep. Robin Kreibich, R-Eau Claire, announced the Assembly Colleges and University Committee he leads would have a Dec. 13 hearing on UW-Eau Claire’s practice.
Kreibich said he held a listening session on campus Monday night “and the consensus was overwhelming that this oral policy was flawed and it had no legal standing.”