EAU CLAIRE, Wis., December 1, 2005—The University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC) has “suspended” its ban on resident assistants’ (RAs’) leading unofficial Bible studies in their own dormitories after a Christian RA filed a federal lawsuit challenging the policy late yesterday. The lawsuit and policy suspension follow weeks of intense public pressure on UWEC since the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) publicly exposed the university’s unjust and unconstitutional policy.
“UWEC courted this lawsuit by ignoring the protests of FIRE, legislators, opinion makers, and the general public that this policy is both legally and morally wrong,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Its suspension of the policy immediately after the lawsuit was filed shows that UWEC likely never really believed it could defend this repressive policy in court.”
UWEC’s experiment with repression began in July, when UWEC administrator Deborah Newman banned RAs from leading private, non-school-sponsored Bible studies in their dorms out of concern that students might feel “judged” and that Bible study-leading RAs might not be sufficiently “approachable.” RA Lance Steiger, troubled by the ban, contacted FIRE, which wrote UWEC Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson to request that she end the Bible study ban. Receiving no response, FIRE took the case public in November, resulting in outcry from the public, from newspapers and talk show hosts nationwide, and from state and national lawmakers. FIRE also put Steiger in touch with attorney Kevin Theriot of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which is representing Steiger in court.
The University of Wisconsin (UW) System, whose Madison campus features a similar ban, belatedly responded to FIRE but made the situation worse by claiming that RAs had always been banned from leading “all” organizations or activities—not just religious ones—within UWEC dorms. This conflicted with both the job description for RAs and the fact that the university has praised and supported RAs who led and organized controversial and political activities such as an official dorm production of The Vagina Monologues, a “Tunnel of Oppression,” and various other programs. Soon afterward, both UW System President Kevin Reilly and a group of 25 concerned Wisconsin state legislators asked the state’s attorney general for her opinion on the constitutionality of the RA Bible study ban. FIRE also wrote the attorney general to provide information that UW failed to include. On November 21, the attorney general’s office refused to give an opinion on the grounds that it might have to represent UWEC in litigation. UWEC’s Larson then suspended the policy late yesterday after the lawsuit was filed.
Steiger’s complaint, filed in Wisconsin federal court, charges UWEC administrators and trustees with violating his freedoms of speech and association and denying him the rights to due process, equal protection, and the free exercise of religion. The ADF’s Theriot said that Steiger will continue to pursue the lawsuit until the policy is truly repealed, and noted, “This incredibly broad restriction on all RA speech seems to have been applied solely to religious speech in yet another example of political correctness run amok.”
“From the beginning, FIRE has insisted that state universities may not forbid RAs or any other students to engage in religious activities in their own rooms and on their own time,” stated FIRE’s Lukianoff. “This manifestly unjust policy must disappear completely before the requirements of the First Amendment can be met,” he concluded.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire can be viewed at thefire.org/uwec.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Vicki Lord Larson, Interim Chancellor, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire: 715-836-2327; email@example.com
Kevin P. Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin System: 608-262-2321; firstname.lastname@example.org