The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) made public its gripe with the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Wednesday, claiming the UW school has "shamefully" attacked the religious freedom of its employees by prohibiting resident assistants from leading bible studies in their rooms.
"As a state university, UWEC has no business forbidding RAs or any other students to engage in religious activities in their own rooms and on their own time," FIRE President David French said in a release.
After receiving a letter from the foundation nearly a month ago, UW-Eau Claire spokesperson Mike Rindo said the university is amid an investigation and analysis of its policies.
"We're in an information-gathering mode right now," Rindo said. "We're undertaking the steps … right now to research what our policies and practices have been and what they should be."
In a July 26 letter to an RA whose name was redacted, UW-Eau Claire Associate Director of Housing and Residence Life Deborah Newman wrote he or she could not continue to lead bible studies in the dorm.
"[W]hen you are in your residence hall, you are always a staff member and, as such, need to follow these policies so that all students are more likely to feel that you are approachable," Newman said. "If this activity were to occur again this year, you would force us to institute disciplinary action."
Rindo said the university, after being contacted by FIRE in a letter dated Oct. 10, has suspended such stringent rules and now handles incidents on a case-by-case basis during the investigation.
UW-Madison political science professor Donald Downs said the university faces a difficult balancing act between respecting personal freedom and respecting the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
"If the university allowed RAs to do it, that would be OK — that wouldn't violate the establishment clause because RAs do other things," Downs said. "The question is whether they can outright ban it based upon concerns of freedom of religion."
Although Downs said he has only disagreed with FIRE once before in its seven-year history, this may be the second time.
"They tend to be, I think, right on the money," he said. "To say the RA can't [lead a bible study] in a formal meeting that's part of the official schedule of the dorm, I don't necessarily see a problem there."
Unlike a student organization, Downs said, an RA is officially employed by the university and therefore the school has significantly more jurisdiction over what views or activities it will sanction.
"If I were drafting this code for that university, I would make a distinction between the RA in his or her professional capacity and his or her personal [life]," Downs commented. "If it's an official role, you've got an establishment-clause problem. I'm not going to say it crosses the line definitely, but it does cause a problem."
Rindo said the university has no timetable for when a revision of its policies will be completed.
"We're not going to reach any hasty conclusions here," he said.