There’s a reason it’s usually a compliment to be considered “principled.” It’s because principles, such as respect for freedom of expression and freedom of religion, serve as moral guideposts that enable a person or institution to make consistent and fair judgments. Conversely, when a person or institution forgets about principles, it usually means trouble. Such is the unfortunate situation at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UWEC), where the decision to ban RAs from leading Bible studies in their own rooms just made UWEC’s dirty laundry into national news. It’s a conspicuous example of what a lack of concern for the principles of freedom of religion and freedom of expression can do.
Let’s go over the facts again in further detail. Undergraduate RA Lance Steiger and several other students who were members of Student Impact, a religious group on UWEC’s campus, posted on the group’s website the locations of weekly Bible study groups they wanted to lead. This turned out to be a mistake they would regret. On July 26, 2005, before the school year even started, Deborah Newman, UWEC’s Associate Director for Housing and Residence Life, went to Student Impact’s website, looked at the location of Bible studies and who was leading them, and cross-referenced this list with lists of RAs and their locations. If that seems like a lot of effort, well, it was.
Newman then wrote a letter to the all the RAs who were leading Bible study groups for Student Impact (but, as far as FIRE knows, no other group) and told them that they were forbidden to lead a Bible study in their rooms or anywhere in their dorms, and that they would face disciplinary action if they did. Weirdly, Newman’s first paragraph says that Housing “specifically explained to RAs that they did not want this to occur.” If you find it a little hard to believe that in some RA briefing session, an administrator got up and said “Oh, by the way, we have a completely unwritten policy that says you can’t lead Bible studies in your rooms or anywhere in your dorms,” and that the Christian students decided that they (1) would not argue and (2) would post the offending locations on the Internet for everyone to see anyway, you’ve got company. In any case, Steiger says that neither he nor any of the other RAs ever heard anything of the sort.
From reading today’s coverage of the case, FIRE has seen that there is some confusion about whether the RAs tried to make Bible studies official hall activities, like, for instance, the Vagina Monologues was. The answer is no. Although FIRE already knew this, I called Lance Steiger this morning and re-asked him the question. He reiterated that “it was never even an issue,” because it wouldn’t have been appropriate to make a religious activity a hall activity. But let’s keep in mind that to UWEC, that didn’t matter. Newman’s letter does not say that RAs can’t have Bible studies as official hall activities, and it never accuses them of doing so. Newman objects to RAs leading even private Bible studies in their dorms because it might make people less comfortable with them, making them in some way less “approachable” to students because students with problems might feel “judged.” Yet RAs are free to lead Bible studies outside the dorms, presumably because it’s more likely to leave a dorm’s own residents in the dark about its RA’s religious practices. The appropriate word to describe this is “creepy.” Oh, and “unconstitutional.”
We still have no word from UWEC on whether it thinks that students who might attend a Bible study (or the also-banned Koran and Torah studies) might be uncomfortable with an official hall production of the Vagina Monologues. Presumably, students who might have a problem with that are to shut up and deal with it. And that’s where we get back to the problem of principles. If UWEC had taken the time to figure out how the principles of freedom of religion and freedom of expression applied here, and stuck to them faithfully, there wouldn’t have been a problem. UWEC banned RA-led Bible studies explicitly because it believed that knowing that an RA led a Bible study could make students feel “judged” or make the the RA less “approachable” to students. Yet there seems to have been no consideration of whether an RA might be less “approachable” to students because he or she might be a secular humanist, or a strong supporter of Lyndon LaRouche, or might have contempt for anyone whose golf score isn’t under 100.
Yes, RAs have a duty to try to make students comfortable with them. But this simply cannot be used as an excuse to force RAs to hide all beliefs or activities that might be offensive to another person. Few people are totally comfortable with everyone they work with or with all their neighbors—but they have to work and live with them anyway. The principle here is that RAs’ freedoms of religion and expression should be preserved. If there are still approachability problems, that might be a sign of poor job performance. But the institution of what amounts to a religious test for RAs simply cannot be an option at a state university like UWEC.
One final note: the AP reports that “Mike Rindo, a spokesman with UW-Eau Claire, said the policy is under review and may be broadened to forbid political and ideological as well as religious activities.” If this is true, it seems that the university has taken exactly the wrong approach to solving this problem. FIRE has repeatedly emphasized, both in its letter and in its press release, that the First Amendment guarantees the freedom to perform both a Bible study and the Vagina Monologues. UWEC’s immediate response? Ban both of them. That sums up about all you need to know about the status of liberty on today’s university campuses.