UW should dump RA Bible study ban

November 13, 2005

The recent flap over whether resident assistants at UW-Eau Claire (and other UW campuses) should be allowed to hold Bible study sessions in dormitories raises two issues: individual rights and the oft-mentioned “separation of church and state.”

That latter phrase raises confusion because while it is tossed about in debates such as this, it does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment says Congress can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Translation: Government can’t have an official religion or prevent people from belonging to whatever religion they choose. It was our founders’ response to the Church of England that created the religious oppression they fled in the first place.

Obviously the UW System cannot prevent a student from holding or taking part in a Bible study on private property. But the issue gets murkier when the person wishing to do so is a resident assistant and the location is a state-owned dormitory. RAs are college students who get room and board in exchange for supervising other students in the dormitory.

The university’s rationale is that RAs should be accessible to all students, and by holding Bible study in the dorm some students might find the RA less approachable. Or, perhaps, not wanting to offend the RA, some students might feel compelled to attend the Bible study even if they have no interest in doing so.

As to the first point of establishing a state religion, campus officials have nothing to worry about. If students were required to attend the Bible study, or if only RAs who subscribe to Christianity were allowed to hold such sessions, the UW clearly would be breaking the law.

But because there is no such distinction, the campus isn’t endorsing an “official” religion.

As to the second point of using public facilities and public employees, that also would be a concern if religious groups were getting special treatment. They’re not. If an RA can organize a group of Packers’ fans to gather in a room or lounge to watch and discuss the Packers, why can’t the same person organize a group who share similar religious beliefs to read and discuss the Bible?

And while the state may own the dormitory building, its residents don’t forfeit their First Amendment rights when they sign the housing agreement. They still have rights to speak, assemble and pray, and if they don’t, then those students are living under a police state.

Finally, does an RA have any “personal time,” or are they considered public employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week? A reasonable person would suggest that while an RA can be called at any time, they are entitled to a personal life in which they should be able to have people into their dorm room to talk about most anything.

Now, everything is a matter of degree. If RAs who happen to be devout Christians unduly pressure or pester students, that would make those RAs less approachable and accessible because students would try to avoid them. But that could be true for RAs who are over the top on any number of topics, be they politics, sports, the environment, etc.

The UW System keeps getting beat up over its policies regarding relatively obscure issues that anger many taxpayers and divert attention from its core mission of preparing the next generation of professional men and women to help lead our society.

UW-Eau Claire students reportedly are very bright, certainly bright enough to know if they want to join the RA to discuss the Bible. The Constitution doesn’t prohibit such activity, and neither should UW-Eau Claire.

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