Dispatches from the Creation Wars

I mentioned a few weeks ago the situation at the University of Wisconsin where the university told dorm RAs that they could no longer host bible studies in their dorm rooms because they were afraid that would make them less “approachable” to other students. This was a ludicrous argument then and it still is, especially since the university had no problem with RAs engaging in all sorts of controversial political and cultural activities that might similarly put off other students. UW temporarily suspended the policy pending review and appointed a committee to make recommendations.

That committee has now issued its report and recommended that the two UW campuses that have this policy be allowed to continue with it. The report is a typical collection of empty platitudes. After declaring UW a “marketplace of ideas and free expression”, they still support the university’s “right to establish reasonable restrictions on RA activities as a condition of employment”, including apparently this restriction on private and non-coercive bible studies in their room.

The problem with all of this is that their policy doesn’t support their alleged goals. They defend the policy by saying that RAs “must be prepared to fulfill employment-related responsibilities any time they are in their room or residence hall.” But if this is really the reason for the restriction, why don’t they ban all meetings in the dorm rooms of RAs? Wouldn’t an RA having a chess club meeting or even a poker game make them unavailable in exactly the same sense? They don’t have a ban on RAs having political meetings in their room, they only ban them from having bible studies.

This is very much like the issue of singling out evolution for a disclaimer that applies equally well to every scientific theory. If their justification for this policy is that a bible study makes an RA “unapproachable” then they should also be banning any political activity that might make them less approachable to those who hold the opposite political views. For that matter, they should make the same rules for professors and guidance counselors and anyone else a student might view as someone they could turn to for help. And if the concern really is that the RA won’t be available at all times, then they should also be banning all group activities in their dorm rooms and require that the RAs just sit in their rooms waiting in case someone stops by. Their excuse for the policy doesn’t match their actions. The UW is already facing one federal lawsuit over this and they’re gonna lose it if they don’t change their position, just as they lost an earlier lawsuit on their student hate speech code.

Comments

  1. #1 AdamIerymenko
    January 24, 2006

    What’s this? Are you calling for equal rights for all points of view? Whoa!

    Didn’t you get the memo? All intellectual and political discourse in America has officially been reduced to shrill ultra-narrow ideological issue groups attempting to stifle each other in the public arena with warning labels, fairness doctrines, finance regulation, free speech zones, etc.

    “My rights are also your rights” is so 18th century… get with the times, man! Stop talking about *ideas*! It’s all about *issues*! Narrow, unrelated, unintegrated *issues*!

  2. #2 RPM
    January 24, 2006

    Is the ACLU representing any RAs in a court case? It would be nice to see a public case in which the ACLU is defending a group that people who attack the ACLA claim the ACLU hates (if you can follow that sentence, more power to you).

    As much as I can’t stand religion, people do have the right to be wrong.

  3. #3 Roman Werpachowski
    January 24, 2006

    What’s a RA?

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    January 24, 2006

    RPM:

    I don’t believe the ACLU is involved in this case, but they have defended many people in similar situations before.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    January 24, 2006

    Roman-

    An RA is a Resident Assistant. Basically, it’s a college student who lives in the dormitories with other students but is designated as a leader. Younger students living in the dorms come to them if they’re having problems adjusting to campus life, problems with their roommates, and so forth. They are students just like everyone else, but they also work for the university as a sort of counselor to other students and to make sure people are following the rules of the dorm.

  6. #6 Jeff Hebert
    January 24, 2006

    “RA” is the abbreviation for “Resident Assistant”, typically a student who lives in the dorm rooms but who is in some way also an employee of the university. Often the school just pays for the room, but sometimes they get a stipend as well.

    This Resident Assistant usually has the job of enforcing the general rules of the school and the residence hall as well as supporting and enhancing the community of the hall. They host mixers, provide limited academic and personal counseling for the student, check the rooms at major breaks for hot plates, beer, that kind of thing, and in general are a friendly presence in the dormitory.

    At least, that’s how it was at my school, where I was an RA my senior year.

  7. #7 Jeff Hebert
    January 24, 2006

    Sorry for the duplicate, missed Ed’s post while I was writing mine.

  8. #8 ZacharySmith
    January 24, 2006

    RPM –

    Even if the ACLU were involved, it wouldn’t slow down crackpots like StopThe ACLU. Has StopTheACLU ever mentioned the ACLU’s defense of the streetcorner preacher arrested in New Orleans (I think it was)? Ed has mentioned it several times.

    No, facts don’t get in the way of a political crusade.

  9. #9 spyder
    January 24, 2006

    It seems to me that these sort of reaction based policies in academia generate from litigation that has been settled, then gagged. I wonder what happened that propagated the perceived threat that kid “x” was going to go home and request parents to sue the university. I just don’t see the threat if these “sessions” were freely open to all, and not any part of an RA’s insistence that all on that floor attend. Even if that were the case, UW could use some better regulations and guidelines for RA behavior than an all-out and arbitrary ban.

  10. #10 John Wilkins
    January 24, 2006

    I wonder if the issue is not that they can’t run bible classes, they just can’t do it on work time and in the workplace. An employer is entitled to restrict what the employee does if it interferes with the job. Running a bible class during their on-call time means that those who need to approach the RA for academic or personal help will be intimidated against interruption when they need it.

    Reading between the lines, this is a reaction to an egregious case – there will be one person who is running bible classes all the time and evangelising the other inhabitants, would be my guess.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    January 24, 2006

    John Wilkins wrote:

    I wonder if the issue is not that they can’t run bible classes, they just can’t do it on work time and in the workplace. An employer is entitled to restrict what the employee does if it interferes with the job. Running a bible class during their on-call time means that those who need to approach the RA for academic or personal help will be intimidated against interruption when they need it.

    If you look at the report linked to, the university is taking the position that an RA is always on call any time he is in his room. But as I said, if that is going to be their standard then it’s pointless to single out bible studies – they should be banning any activity in the RA’s room that might interfere with their availability. He should never be able to play a poker game with his friends or have family visit or even cram for a test for that matter.

    Reading between the lines, this is a reaction to an egregious case – there will be one person who is running bible classes all the time and evangelising the other inhabitants, would be my guess.

    If so, the report mentions none and no one has ever brought up such a situation in the news. That seems rather farfetched to me.

  12. #12 maurile
    January 24, 2006

    The ACLU of Wisconsin is on the wrong side of this one:

    Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said his organization is looking into the issue. Ahmuty agreed with the university�s position that state employees should not be organizing religious or political events on work time or place.

    �The function of the R.A. is almost like a big brother or big sister,� Ahmuty said. �When they�re in the dorm they�re an R.A. 24/7�. This isn�t like a jail situation where students have no other alternative. They can go off campus.�

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    January 24, 2006

    That disappoints me, maurile. I dare say that if the university had declared that RAs could not hold meetings of a pro-choice group in their dorm rooms, their position would be quite different. Yes, even the ACLU has its biases. My support for them doesn’t blind me to that.

  14. #14 Jim Lippard
    January 25, 2006

    FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, http://www.thefire.org) has been very actively involved in this case.

  15. #15 Ed Brayton
    January 25, 2006

    Yes, it was FIRE that alerted me to this one originally and to the committee report. I read that website regularly and think they do good work.

  16. #16 Sastra
    January 25, 2006

    The Freedom From Religion Foundation is supporting the university position in this case, and arguing that an RA holding Bible study is a coersive type of situation. Although I’m a member of FFRF, I do disagree with them in this particular instance — for pretty much the same reasons you mention.

    That’s a problem with most organizations, whether they be political, philosophical, whatever. You seldom get a group that always stands on what you consider to be the Right Side. You look at the overall position, and make compromises when you have to, and argue within the group when you can.

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