Compass: Challenging Beliefs

By  | 

During the past couple months UW Eau Claire has been the center of national scrutiny and debate over an unwritten policy on resident assistants leading bible studies in the dorms.
One RA feels the school is violating his constitutional rights by not allowing him to hold bible studies in his dorm room.
But the university says his dorm room is his office and as a state employee can't promote a particular religion or political ideal in that office.
Part of Lance Steiger 's identity is his role at UW Eau Claire as a resident assistant.
Yet a stronger part of his identity is that of a Christian who holds bible studies in his dorm room and in the basement of the building.
For two years he led these studies on a voluntary basis without complaint. Then he received a letter from the university housing department.
"In July about 4 other RA's and I got this letter saying we heard you were leading a bible study and stop this or face disciplinary action. They also said they told us this before, but they hadn't," Steiger said.
A policy that surprised Steiger and made him think his first amendment rights were violated.
"Political, religious or otherwise RA's should be able to talk about whatever they want to in their rooms," Steiger added.
But the university says that's been the practice for some time.
"The longstanding practice and policy has been that RA's are restricted from leading or organizing certain activities where they have supervising authority over other students," UWEC spokesman Mike Rindo said.
Those activities include sales events, partisan political events and religious events.
The university says the policy is in place for RA's to be more approachable to students.
This becomes a state issue state employees, RA's receive free room and board and their dorms are considered to be their offices.
However, the practice is not in writing, creating inconsistencies in how the practice is instructed and enforced.
It's not just that the policy is unwritten that's adding to the problems. Each university in the UW System has a different policy. Meaning what goes here at Eau Claire isn't the same 30 miles down the road at stout."
"We have no policy on what RA's can and can't do. Just as long as they're approachable to the students in their halls," UW-Stout spokesman Ryan Wilson said.
To further confuse matters,. UW-Madison has a written policy forbidding bible studies. So, UW System President Kevin Reilly created a committee with input from each university to learn what can be applied uniformly through the system.
The committee is expected to report back to him on January 9th, but he is already looking at it with what he calls a 'Wisconsin common sense' approach.
"RA's should be able to do pretty much what they please in their room as long as it's legal, ethical, and within the boundaries of what is expected and at the same time remain available for residents on their hall," Reilly said.
The creation of a system committee along with the inconsistencies with the enforcement of the practice led UW-Eau Claire to temporarily suspend the practice at the end of November, making Steiger free to hold bible studies in the basement of his dorm, for now.
"It's still the same group of guys. We've just got a little more to talk about," Steiger said.
But a temporary injunction isn't permanent.
With the help of two outside special interests groups, Steiger filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the university, members of the housing department and the UW Board of Regents.
"I want them to rescind the policy completely and I'm asking for damages of one dollar," Steiger said.
UW Eau Claire and the UW System aren't the only ones trying to sort the black and the white from the gray area.
The state lawmakers in Madison held a hearing Tuesday with testimony from Steiger and Reilly.
Colleges and Universities Chair Rob Kreibich of Eau Claire was pleased with what was said at the hearing, but says the legislature will monitor the UW System's committee.
"If there's no consensus and President Reilly won't act then the legislature stands poised to come up with a policy," Rep. Kreibich said.
Even when this particular fight is over Steigier says he wants to be involved with helping similar instances of it in the future.
If the final decision changes policy allowing RA's to hold events such as bible studies in their dorms, Steiger adds his diploma in spring will mean more.
"That would be the one main thing I'd remember about graduating from the University at Eau Claire is making a difference. Helping people get their freedom of speech rights back," Steiger said.