Wisconsin's Battle of the Bible

March 2, 2006

The University of Wisconsin announced a plan Wednesday that would allow resident assistants to hold Bible study meetings in their dormitory rooms.

The plan was immediately praised by critics of the old policies in place on some Wisconsin campuses, which barred such meetings as an infringement on the separation of church and state, since the R.A.'s are state employees. But advocates for such separation accused the university of caving in to politicians who were portraying the university as having a "Bible ban." (In fact, no one was ever banned from having Bibles or reading them, and only those who were employed in the dorms had any limits on group religious activities.)

Under the new Wisconsin policy, which is expected to receive formal approval from the Board of Regents, R.A.'s would have the same rights as other students to hold meetings in dormitory rooms. Other students have the right to hold Bible study or religious meetings, so that would now be extended to R.A.'s. A draft of the policy notes that R.A.'s "are students themselves" and so should have the same rights as other students. The new policy would bar R.A.'s from pressuring any other students into participating in any religious activities.

The issue gained prominence in the fall, when an R.A. at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire complained that he was barred from organizing religious meetings in his dormitory room. Eau Claire officials noted that he was a state employee, acting as such, in his room. But national groups quickly publicized the "Bible ban" and the university announced a plan to review the policy, which resulted in the draft released Wednesday.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which criticized the old policy, embraced the new one, saying that it was "what the First Amendment demands."

Others think that the First Amendment demands the old policy. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that the university is "capitulating completely" and that students will lose out as a result.

Gaylor noted that her group does not oppose R.A.'s who pray or read the Bible by themselves, who organize Bible study at churches, or who answer questions about their beliefs. She said, however, that there was something different about a state employee using state facilities for religious purposes.

She noted an article in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that quoted a student who was approached by an R.A. about going to a Bible study session, and was then given a Bible by the R.A. after he turned down the invitation. The student was quoted as saying that the incident made him feel uncomfortable.

"R.A.'s are state employees who have authority over other students and the state is subsidizing their dorm rooms," Gaylor said. "The university should stand up for the secular atmosphere there."

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