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Another Government Attempt to Suppress Religious Speech:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which I've generally found to be highly reliable, reports:

[T]he University of Wisconsin--Eau Claire (UWEC) has banned resident assistants (RAs) from leading Bible studies in their own dormitories. The university claims the ban is necessary because some students might not feel RAs who lead Bible studies are "approachable." . . .

The controversy began on July 26, when UWEC 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." . . .

[In a letter to the university,] FIRE . . . pointed out a 2004 article in UWEC's student newspaper in which the Office of Housing and Residence Life praised an RA who for three years in a row staged the controversial feminist play The Vagina Monologues as an official "residence hall activity." This praise came despite the RA's acknowledgement that "with the Vagina Monologues…she [did not have] as much time as she would have liked for her wing." . . .

"UWEC's position that leading a Bible study is more likely to make students uncomfortable than leading a controversial play like The Vagina Monologues simply doesn't hold water," noted FIRE's French. He continued, "The First Amendment doesn't end with a Bible study or with The Vagina Monologues — it guarantees a student's right to perform both."

FIRE is quite right here, both as a matter of academic freedom and of First Amendment rights, and the university is quite wrong. It's possible that the university might be able to insist that its RAs engage in no ideological group meetings at all in their dorm rooms, though even that would likely be unconstitutional. But to let them engage in a wide range of ideological speech, but singling out religious speech for special burden, is pretty clearly unconstitutional (under the Free Speech Clause, see Rosenberger v. Rector, and in my view under the Free Exercise Clause as well, McDaniel v. Paty).

Consider also the University's reasoning: "We have a fair number of students in each of our halls who do not practice Christianity, as well as some Christians who may follow a different doctrine than might be proposed at a bible study. It is very important to us that these students still feel that they can turn to you in a crisis, for information, or for support and hopefully that they would not feel judged or pushed in a direction that does not work for them." Is it really the case that some University of Wisconsin students are so hostile to out-of-the-closet Christians that they are reluctant to seek help from them? Or that they are so naive that they assume that most RAs have no religious or ideological views at all (at least unless the RAs reveal those views by hosting a Bible study), and thus would never "judge[]" a student who comes asking for support? If that's so, then it seems to me that the University should be working on those problems, and trying to prepare students for a world in which many of their bosses, mentors, and others will be prominent Christians, Jews, atheists, or whatever else — not giving in to students' perceived discomfort with those who prominently follow other religions.

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University of Wisconsin Suspends Ban on Resident Assistants s Running Bible Study Groups in Their Dorm Rooms:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education posts an e-mail from the University's Interim Chancellor:

Effective immediately, UW-Eau Claire is suspending practices and policies prohibiting resident assistants from organizing, leading or recruiting for certain activities in the rooms and residence halls where they live.

I concluded the suspension is necessary after an initial campus review found that there have been inconsistencies in how the practice has been communicated to resident assistants and because UW System has announced that it will appoint a system-wide advisory committee that will provide guidance about RA activities.

The policies and practices in question prohibit RAs from organizing, leading and recruiting for certain activities in rooms and residence halls where they live and have supervisory authority over other students. Those include partisan politics and religious activities. . . .

Very glad to hear it, and hope the suspension becomes permanent. FIRE deserves credit for its work in this matter, and many others; for more details on the incident, see here.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. University of Wisconsin Suspends Ban on Resident Assistants s Running Bible Study Groups in Their Dorm Rooms:
  2. Another Government Attempt to Suppress Religious Speech:
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