Today’s FIRE press release announces that the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC) is now in federal court over its unconstitutional ban on RA-led Bible studies in those RAs’ own dormitories. Since FIRE exposed this shameful example of religious repression last month, UWEC and the UW system have been taking enormous hits from all sides for their stubborn insistence on maintaining and defending a policy that has not even been codified at UWEC and that exists at only two of the system’s campuses (UW-Madison apparently features a similar ban on RAs’ private practice of religion).
Through it all, UWEC and the UW system in general have maintained that this is an important policy for a variety of reasons—to make students comfortable with RAs, to uphold the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and so on—even though it’s apparently not so important that they wrote it down. Yet it seems that whatever important principles UWEC was claiming to defend were less important than the overriding principle of not being embarrassed in court. RA Lance Steiger’s case against the university was filed at 3:27 p.m. yesterday. UWEC Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson’s e-mail announcing that the policy had been “suspended” has a time stamp of 4:08 p.m.
Make no mistake; FIRE is glad that an unjust policy has been suspended. But the fact that it took half an hour for UWEC to begin to capitulate after Steiger filed his lawsuit strongly suggests that university officials knew very well that their position was constitutionally untenable. (After all, FIRE and countless others told them so.) So what could make UWEC’s administrators and lawyers, public servants all, decide that an apparently ad hoc policy was more important than the Bill of Rights (at least up until the point where they had to defend it in court)? I’ll leave that for Torch readers to decide.