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FIRE Advises UW System to Heed the Constitution

In the wake of FIRE’s successful campaign to end the ban on RA-led Bible studies at UWEC, and the subsequent lawsuit filed by Christian RA Lance Steiger against UWEC, the University of Wisconsin System is scrambling to put together a definitive, system-wide policy on whether RAs should be allowed to lead voluntary Bible studies on their own time and in their own dorm rooms. President Kevin P. Reilly has appointed a committee to gather information and make recommendations to him by today, January 9. In testimony before the Wisconsin legislature, he stated,

I have asked UW Chancellors to nominate residence life and student affairs professionals to serve on an advisory group that will examine the role of RAs in residence life programs. These professionals will look at the relationship of RA activities to the wide educational experiences we offer our students, and the expectations of RAs as university employees and as mentors for students.

This advisory group will make recommendations to me by January 9th on the appropriate level of involvement of RAs in leading and organizing activities for students who live in the residence halls. We will consider these recommendations—and information from this hearing and from anyone else who wants to weigh in—as we develop a systemwide written policy on these issues.

On Friday, FIRE responded to Reilly’s request for advice from outside sources. Our letter first stated that UWEC’s original policy banning RA-led Bible study was unquestionably unconstitutional, since UWEC allowed and even required RAs to lead a host of other ideologically motivated activities. FIRE also assured Reilly that the UW System need not fear an Establishment Clause violation in allowing RAs to lead Bible studies in their own dorms. FIRE finally attacked the argument that RAs are always on the clock and that their dorm rooms are tantamount to university offices 24/7. FIRE stated that RAs should be granted “a private sphere of activity that should not be regulated by the state.” RAs in their own rooms, of their own volition, should be able to gather to read any book, secular or sacred.

Again and again, however, UW seems to conflate RA’s leading Bible studies with RA’s pressuring other students to attend. When he announced the task force, Reilly stated that “there is a difference...between inquiry and recruitment,” and he concluded his request for input by stating:

I believe we can come up with a policy that protects individual employee rights to personal activities, while assuring a living environment that is free of undue pressure to participate in any activity whether it be religious, political, or social.

But Reilly should be reminded that there have been no reports of RA Bible study leaders’ recruiting or pressuring students under their charge. While FIRE agrees that no student should ever feel pressured to act in opposition to his or her will, it is also important that the policy in question not prevent students from expressing their beliefs through personal activities that have no bearing on their approachability or job performance.

The full letter sent to Reilly and other key stakeholders in this issue is worth a read. Reilly has not stated when the new policy will be announced.

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