Newspaper Editors Denounce Wisconsin Bible Study Ban

November 15, 2005

Editors at two newspapers in Wisconsin have recently taken FIRE’s side—and the side of freedom—in the current dispute at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC). In case you haven’t seen our two recent press releases, noticed Robert’s three most recent blog entries, read any of the many media accounts of the case, or heard any of us on the radio lately, UWEC bans student resident assistants (RAs) from leading private Bible studies in their dorms. UWEC’s ridiculous reason for this was that some students might feel “judged” or that their RAs aren’t “approachable”—which apparently was not a concern when one RA was lauded for organizing dorm productions of The Vagina Monologues three years in a row. The university’s rationale now seems to have shifted to a constant refrain that RAs are “state employees” and an insinuation that they therefore essentially have no free time to do as they wish—a laughable notion editors are now demolishing.

Take what the editor of the ­Leader-Telegram in Eau Claire wrote in a Sunday editorial. Here is a particularly good snippet:

[W]hile 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.

Right on! And also this weekend, the editorial board of the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee called UWEC’s policy “silly.” The piece is worth quoting in full:

It is not true that officials at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire will be conducting room checks to make sure that students aren’t reading their Bibles or the Qur’an on state property; nor will those officials be conducting bed checks to make sure the kids aren’t praying before they close their eyes to sleep. But officials are doing something almost as silly by enforcing a non-written policy barring resident assistants from holding religious or political activities in the dorms where they work, even when those activities take place on the students’ own time.

Lance Steiger, a senior at UW–Eau Claire, ran afoul of school authorities because last year, he and a group of friends gathered in the basement of his dormitory for Bible study sessions. In July, he received a letter from the school telling him that if he did not cease, he would face disciplinary action.

Apparently the biggest issue is that Steiger conducted the sessions on school property. “R.A.s are free to engage in these activities as long as they are not doing it an environment where they have supervisory roles over other students,” according to school spokesman Mike Rindo.

The problem is that there is no such place. Students don’t just seek advice from R.A.s when they’re in the dorm. They talk to R.A.s at lunch, over coffee and at the local bars. If the university’s contention is that being an R.A. is a 24/7 kind of job, that applies no matter where the R.A. is when she or he is asked a question by a student.

But the university draws an artificial line at the dormitory door. It’s a line that won’t hold.

If Steiger held the Bible sessions at the local coffee shop, students would still know that he’s an R.A. It seems to be an absolutely silly requirement to force Steiger and his friends to take their Bible session to that coffee shop or into the parking lot of a neighboring dorm.

As long as Steiger isn’t using his position of authority to foist his religious views on others or trying to compel attendance at the sessions, the university shouldn’t be interfering in Steiger’s expression of his private religious beliefs with his friends on his own time. And the same would apply if Steiger were a Muslim or a Jew or a Wiccan—or a Republican or Democrat, for that matter.

The R.A. is allowed some free time in his place of residence, even if that place of residence is a taxpayer-funded dormitory. And R.A.s, just as others on campus, should be accorded the room to exercise their beliefs.

The university should back off its policy.

FIRE, of course, agrees, and hopes that UWEC will do the right thing. We understand that the attorney general of Wisconsin has been asked to review the “Bible study ban,” as many media accounts have dubbed the policy, and it’s really not a close call. It also shouldn’t be a close call from a PR point of view, unless for some reason UWEC likes being rightfully trashed in Suzanne Fields’ syndicated column, in many regional papers, in USA Today, on local TV, and even on the Fox News Channel.

Schools:  University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire