Sunday, November 27, 2005

If it looks like anti-religious bias...

At times I've been harshly critical of overwrought claims of anti-religious bias over things like the "war on Christmas," or critcism directed at a student body president who used his speech at convocation for blatant proselytizing. But does a real bias against religion, particularly religions of the traditional type, exist in the academy? I think it does, as evidenced by this story from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire where the administration is trying to rein in religious activities by resident assistants in dormitories. (Hat tip: Erin O'Connor; I'm afraid I'm coming to this a bit late, but better late than never.)

Here's the gist of the story, as recounted by the invaluable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

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.” Shocked by the ban, undergraduate RA Lance Steiger inquired further via e-mail. In a September 22 reply, Newman reiterated the ban and told him, “[a]s an RA you need to be available to your residents both in reality and from their perspective.”

Another page on the FIRE site elaborates:

Newman explained that non-Christian students and Christian students whose doctrine differs from that of the RAs might not “feel that they can turn to [the Bible study-leading RAs] in a crisis, for information, or for support and hopefully they would not feel judged or pushed in a direction that does not work for them.” According to Newman, the office’s decision was supposedly intended “to make sure RAs are accessible to all residents.” Newman also states that since Bible study leaders would naturally “contact and solicit people for [Bible study],” RAs must not lead such studies because they should “not be involved in such behaviors in their role” as RAs. She does give permission for RAs to attend (but not lead) Bible studies in their own residence halls in places other than their own rooms, or to lead Bible studies outside of their halls.

With its feet held to the FIRE (sorry about the bad pun), UWEC adopted a new stance:

Finally, in a November 8 letter, the University of Wisconsin’s general counsel attempted to justify the Bible study ban by claiming that UWEC has “consistently followed” a “viewpoint neutral” policy prohibiting RAs from organizing or leading “all organization [sic] or activities.” This claim contradicts UWEC’s own job description for RAs, which gives RAs the responsibility “[t]o help organize and promote educational, recreational, social, and cultural activities that the students want and need,” and asks them to “actively assist” in the “political” programs of the dorm. It also conflicts with the fact that the university praised an RA for leading an official dorm production of The Vagina Monologues in 2004.
“UWEC’s claim that RAs are banned from organizing any activities is not only disingenuous; it is clearly a post hoc justification of its earlier viewpoint-discriminatory restrictions on RAs’ religious expression,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Further, for a university to decide that an acceptable alternative to banning the expression of only some viewpoints is to ban all viewpoints is disgraceful and shows a real ignorance of what it means to be a university in a free society.”

Now, I should say that I disagree somewhat with FIRE's stance. I can see the merit of the argument that allowing RAs to lead Bible study groups in their dorms could create a situation in which they use their official position to proselytize; and the UWEC policy would still allow them to lead Bible study groups in other venues. (For an interesting discussion of the issue, see this thread at the Volokh Conspiracy.) One can legitimately argue that wihin the dorm, it is difficult for to seprate what RAs do in their capacity as students and private individuals from what they do in their capacity as university employees. But if there are restrictions, they ought to be -- and ought to have always been -- viewpoint-neutral. In other words, if an RA cannot host a Bible study group in his or her dorm room, s/he also shouldn't be able to host a meeting of a student group that opposes (or supports) the War in Iraq, a feminist group, a gay rights group, etc. That seems to be the UWEC position right now; but it clearly seems to be an afterthought. Indeed, as FIRE points out, the university's job description for RAs encourages involvement in political activities in the dorm.

The praise heaped on the RA who had organized a dorm production of The Vagina Monologues clinches it. Were I in college today, I daresay I would feel much less uncomfortable seeking personal advice or support from a resident assistant who led a Bible study group -- even as a non-Christian and a sexually active single woman -- than from one who had organized a production of The Vagina Monologues. (Not that I can see myself seeking personal advice or support from a dorm RA, but we're talking hypotheticals.)

So yes, it's pretty clear that UWEC regards Bible-based Christian viewpoints as particularly likely to cause offense or make students feel excluded or "judged" from an alien perspective. Now, the university is trying to cover its bias by retroactively proscribing all political, religious or ideological activities by RAs in their dorm rooms. This ban is certainly debatable of free speech grounds; but if it stays in place, it should at least be fairly enforced. Something tells me, though, that things like The Vagina Monologues will somehow elude the ban.


Anonymous said...

"Now, the university is trying to cover its bias by retroactively proscribing all political, religious or ideological activities by RAs in their dorm rooms. "

But isn't that the best solution, anyway? Yes, certainly, the school was more immediately worried about religious influence than political influence and yes, that certainly reflects a bias on their part. But however they come to it, that's a good outcome. Why drag Christianity into it, when the school clearly included all religious groups from the beginning?

Anonymous said...

Maybe times have changed quite a bit since my own dormitory days in the late 1970's, but I have to question U of W's job description for RAs. As representatives of the university administration, RAs shouldn't be in the organization business, period, other than innocuous, all-inclusive activities such as intramural sports or mixers. The principal role of the RA is to assure that no laws are being violated on-campus, and that some facsimile of civilization is maintained within the dormitory.

RAs can certainly attend Bible-study sessions if they so desire, and may even want to help in organizing such a session, but not in their capacity as RAs. Running productions of the Vagina Monologues or political pep rallies are also utterly inappropriate and should not be conducted by RAs in their official capacities on a publically-funded university campus.

Cathy Young said...

Cal -- I said "anti-religious bias," not "anti-Christian bias," actually. But it's pretty clear from the documentation that the administration's main concern was with Bible studies.

So, even if the outcome was viewpoint-neutral, the impetus clearly wasn't. And it remains to be seen how neutrally the policy will be enforced.

Anonymous said...

religion saves u..

Susan said...

I was very pleased to find this website. I wanted to thank you for your time for this wonderful post!! I definitely enjoy reading it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you blog post. Find out who was born on any day in any month in history via our calendar of famous birthdays. Includes famous, historical, noteworthy and Celebrity birthdays.