With resident assistant policy effectively changed, and the lawsuit over the issue settled, many in the University of Wisconsin System are breathing a sigh of relief.
Controversy originated at UW-Eau Claire, where RA Lance Steiger sued the UW System for violating his rights to free speech and religion by banning RAs from holding Bible studies. The case was settled Friday for $2,500 in legal fees plus a symbolic $1 in damages.
Additionally, the Board of Regents approved a new system-wide policy earlier this month to replace previous polices, which were different from campus to campus and were often unwritten.
"We are very happy with the settlement," said Kevin Theriot, Alliance Defense Fund lawyer representing Lance Steiger. "The main statement [Lance is making] is that he can have his Bible study."
Theriot said Steiger asked for $1 to make the point that he was not pursuing the lawsuit for the money, but rather to bring about positive change in the UW System.
The new policy will mean changes for many residence halls throughout the system, as several UW campuses forbade religious and other group meetings led by RAs prior to approval of the revised policy.
Paul Evans, director of university housing for UW-Madison, said residence halls here are taking steps to align with the new policy, but minor details will take awhile to work themselves out.
"What we're hoping for — and what we've asked our house fellows to do for the remainder of the year — is if they're thinking of having a meeting, to meet with their residence-life coordinator to make sure they're not putting any undue pressure [on students they work with]," Evans said.
The new policy states that while RAs are encouraged to participate in and lead activities, they may not use their leadership position to inappropriately influence, pressure or coerce student residents to attend or participate in the RA-led activities.
Evans recognizes the potential difficulty of determining just what qualifies as inappropriate influence, but said working out those details will be easier once concrete examples surface.
"That's one of the things we're going to have to work through with training," Evans said, noting that RA training beginning next semester will address this issue.
Deborah Newman, associate director of housing at UW-Eau Claire, said her campus will probably adopt similar methods in order to inform RAs of the new policy and work to implement it properly.
Rep. Robin Kreibich, R-Eau Claire, said the best way for RAs to avoid pressuring student residents into participation would be to begin activities with a general disclaimer that attendance is indeed voluntary.
Evans had similar sentiments, noting RA-led meetings should not "confuse residents who might think it's a required floor event."
Overall, however, Newman said UW-Eau Claire is simply "pleased that [the lawsuit is] settled and [is pleased] to have some closure."
Whether RAs throughout the UW System will take advantage of the policy change by hosting previously banned meetings is tough to predict, Evans said.
As for Steiger, his lawyer said it is likely he will continue with his Bible studies for the remainder of the year.