Bible ban puts policy in national spotlight
November 20, 2005
Campus controversy over free speech not easily resolved
by John Brewer
Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)
The voice mail was hard to decipher, especially since it was made by a friend holding his phone up to a radio.
The friend told Lance Steiger that his fight with the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire had made it to the national airwaves — the Rush Limbaugh show, no less.
"I hadn't thought it would be a national story like this," Steiger said.
"It" is a campus controversy that began this summer and has ballooned to involve university officials, national media and a U.S. congressman.
It started when a school official wrote Steiger over summer break and told him that he could no longer lead his weekly Bible study meetings in his dorm. As a resident assistant and state employee, he was prohibited from leading or organizing religious meetings, partisan political soirées or any type of sales event. For an RA to organize these events, the administrator wrote, could alienate residents on the hall.
"This was literally the first time that I've ever heard this said," the senior business finance major said. The school admits that it's not a written policy, just one that is told to RAs at orientation meetings.
If Steiger continued with the meetings, the administrator wrote, he could face disciplinary actions.
Steiger tried to get the school to abolish the policy.
"To no avail, obviously. That's why I went to FIRE," he said.
FIRE, or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is a nonprofit group that focuses on first-amendment rights for college students.
"It's not rocket science to say, 'Let's have a marketplace of ideas,' " FIRE president David French said, criticizing the school's reaction to the Bible study matter. "As long as the communication is lawful, let the students engage in it."
FIRE contacted the school in mid-October and asked the chancellor to drop the RA Bible study "ban."
When the group didn't receive a response by its deadline of Oct. 28, It did what it normally does: it took the issue public.
The story blew up.
"In this instance, when you have evangelicals who are in a pretty heavy-handed manner shut down, that activates an entire network of evangelical individuals, evangelical organizations and evangelical media," said French of the ensuing media coverage.
Versions of the Bible study story have appeared in Milwaukee, Madison and Eau Claire newspapers, student Web logs, leftist Web sites, Christian Web sites, and even a Corpus Christi, Texas, radio station's Web site. Coverage may have peaked when a guest host on the nationally syndicated Rush Limbaugh show talked about the situation for 30 minutes Tuesday.
FIRE has made public other issues involving the campus — such as a controversy over student fees — but none have gotten this level of coverage.
"The student fee issue is an eye-glazingly boring issue to a lot of people. It's still significant," said French, but it "doesn't resonate in the public as much as 'I can't lead a Bible study.' "
Mike Rindo, a UW-Eau Claire spokesman, said he was surprised by how quickly the story spread and how quickly FIRE wanted a response.
"Outside entities don't have the big picture in mind, so they don't understand the process that has to be taken to arrive at the best solution," he said. "For example, they may raise a concern and demand immediate action. And then if you don't respond according to their wishes, they may go public with incomplete information."
Rindo said a Nov. 14 FIRE press release that claimed the school was going to expand policies to prohibit RAs from any type of organizing was wrong. He thought that the group in creating the release may have relied on what he contends was a misquote from an Associated Press story. Rindo said he told the AP reporter that restrictions on political and sales events for RAs already existed.
"We've spent a lot of time trying to correct misinformation on this and to try and help people fully understand our policies and practices on this," Rindo said.
Ron Greene, a communication studies professor with the University of Minnesota, said that groups like FIRE use media to build publicity for their issues, and religion is a hot topic.
"Something like this is going to have legs," he said. "The sort of media machine needs it, it needs these controversies. It feeds the general zeitgeist right now about the place of religion in American culture."
He also said the timetable of a special interest group doesn't always mesh with an institution such as a university.
"You have two very different temporal pressures. The activists want immediate remedy to a controversy, where universities move slower," he said. "There's a bureaucracy that has to be respected. It's very difficult to change RA policy tomorrow."
That doesn't mean that the coverage hasn't prodded the university system into action.
University of Wisconsin President Kevin Reilly has asked Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager to review the legality of the school's policy. Her office has not released an opinion.
U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a Republican from Green Bay and UW-Eau Claire alumnus, heard about the situation and is pushing the state Legislature to hold hearings on the school's policy.
He has written Reilly twice, according to the congressman's press secretary, and is investigating whether the issue can be taken up at the federal level.
"I had never even considered that a congressman would get involved," Steiger said.
The student hasn't spoken with school administrators since the story went public and is expecting a change in policy.
The school said it would make a decision on the restriction by the end of the academic year.
"I would like to hear soon what their response is to this," he said, adding that he hasn't ruled out any future actions, including a lawsuit.
And as long as the university hasn't changed anything, he hasn't either.
Steiger still leads weekly Bible studies in the basement of his dorm.
"How is that really hurting anything?"
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