Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bible Study Ban Bad News For UW - Eau Claire

State universities are often forced to walk a very fine line between fostering the growth of learning and insuring the civil rights of the university students are protected. Unfortunately, this line can often be very difficult to spot.

From The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire Associate Director for Housing and Residence Life Deborah Newman sent a letter saying RAs could not lead Bible studies in their dorms at any time. Her reason for this was that students might not think Bible study-leading RAs were sufficiently "approachable". The letter was sent to RAs who were members of the Student Impact religious group and who had been leading Bible studies, not as official residence hall activities, but in their own dorm rooms and on their own time.

Newman's letter added that Koran and Torah studies would be similarly prohibited and that RAs who did conduct a Bible study in their dorms would face "disciplinary action".

A copy of Ms. Newman's letter can be found here.

Now, I am not attempting to cast derision upon the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire (which has issued it's response here), nor is it my intention to castigate Ms. Newman for her letter. As I said, any state university walks a very fine line when trying to enforce this sort of policy, which has been the policy at UW - Eau Claire for some time. Unfortunately, I think Ms. Newman and UW - Eau Claire stepped across to the wrong side of the line this time.

First, while a resident advisor is an employee of the university, I reject the implication that by leading a Bible study group, the R.A. is acting as an agent of the state advocating for religion. A R.A. is a student also and has the same right as any other student to free expression of religion. The admonishment furnished by Ms. Newman also draws a distinction between the R.A. attending a Bible study and leading a Bible study. I believe this is a distinction of no discernible difference. Whether member or leader of the Bible study, the R.A. is well within his/her right of religious expression.

Second, I reject the idea on its face that the R.A. leading a Bible study group creates an uncomfortable or coercive atmosphere. The Supreme Court has upheld the right of religious folks to evangelize their faith and hold meetings in public places, so long as equal access is given. So long as the R.A. respects the right of the students under her supervision to decline the invitation, then no such environment of coercion is created. It's only if the R.A. begins to qualify his role as an advisor based on his personal religious beliefs that an issue arises. In the absence of that, a ban on allowing an R.A. to lead a Bible study in his dorm room places an undue burden upon that R.A. in an attempt to mitigate the possibility of another's rights being compromised. That creates an inherently un-level playing field.

Third, it is unfair for the UW - Eau Claire to abridge the rights of a R.A. based on the university granting a room and board stipend. Such a stipend leaves the R.A. dependent upon the university for lodging and using that dependency to ascribe an "around the clock" workshift is unfair from a labor perspective. Even if the university is providing room and board to the R.A., I believe it must grant that R.A. private use within the confines of her "home". The right to religious expression and the freedom from such are thus preserved for all parties.

Finally, banning R.A.'s from leading Bible studies, or any kind of ideological studies, runs counter to the spirit of liberal education that a state university is supposed to be fostering. Being exposed to new cultures and new ideas is one of the primary purposes of any university and it should not be abridged in this way. The implication that any given religious belief grants, by default, an aura of unapproachability to anyone is absurd but to have a university institutionalize that belief is to deprive students of a wonderful learning opportunity. And that's a terrible shame.

On a more personal note, while I was not an R.A., I was a dorm security supervisor and I lived on a floor with an R.A. who was devoutly religious. It was never an issue for me or for any other student on the floor, as far as I was aware. Also, as a security supervisor, I and my staff were generally the first to be approached when any religious or political groups wanted to start fishing for converts. With the exception of only two organizations (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and The Nation of Islam), all the groups were respectful of the right of the students to decline invitations to join said groups and were quite tolerant of the vocal criticism they received from detractors. Being present at such exchanges of ideas is one of the finest things about attending a university, and I believe the UW - Eau Claire has potentially cast a pall on this marketplace of ideas.

I have no doubt that Ms. Newman is trying to do what is best for UW - Eau Claire students. I also am very adamant in my belief that the freedom of religious expression also means the freedom from the religious expressions of others. However, I think the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire's R.A. policy is unnecessarily restrictive and I believe the university would be better off without it.

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