When freedoms clash

March 5, 2006

A proposed University of Wisconsin policy would give resident assistants the same rights other students have to hold meetings in their dorm rooms or elsewhere on campus. Interestingly, you won’t find the word “religion” or “Bible” or the like in the proposal, but it was a church-state flap that prompted the proposal.

UW-Eau Claire warned resident assistant Lance Steiger in July to cease his practice of leading Bible study in the basement of the dormitory where he was stationed. He countered that he was exercising his right to free speech and religion. The ensuing debate went nationwide, and an evangelical law firm filed a federal lawsuit in Steiger’s behalf.

The UW-Eau Claire policy that led to the warning was off base. And the proposed policy for the entire UW System is exactly right. The Board of Regents should adopt that policy at its meeting this week.

The Eau Claire policy, which reflects rules at other UW campuses, forbade resident assistants – upperclassmen or graduate students who get housing and a stipend to monitor and guide students living in dormitories – from hosting religious or political activities in their buildings.

What we have here is a clash of rights. The university was trying to preserve freedom from coercion for dormitory residents, who may feel pressured to attend the activities. But in the process, the university abridged the First Amendment rights of the resident assistants.

The new policy strikes a better balance. It would permit the assistants to host political or religious events provided they don’t pressure the students in their charge to attend.

With rights, of course, come responsibilities. Resident assistants have the duty to help “create an open, inclusive and supportive residential community,” as the proposed policy states.

Hence, the assistants who host religious or political activities should take great care to avoid giving the impression that attendance is mandatory. Even if most students seem thrilled to join in, the assistants must avoid creating a hostile environment for the objectors, however few.

UW System President Kevin Reilly drew up the proposal. He said that each institution would set up procedures for handling complaints about coercion – a fitting precaution.

This proposal deserves the regents’ support.

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