State Employees Should Not Be Paid to Proselytize

FFRF Statement & Action Alert –
Public Feedback Requested in State/Church Issue by University of Wisconsin System

Where is the line drawn between a publicly-paid authority figure inviting a student to pray and coercing the student to pray?

The University of Wisconsin System should continue to prohibit state employees living in dorms from holding bible studies in their publicly-paid dorm rooms.

A Christian-right group has filed a lawsuit on behalf of resident assistant (RA) Lance Steiger, who was told by UW-Eau Claire officials to stop holding bible studies in his dorm room. Interestingly, the lawsuit was filed even after Eau Claire officials rescinded the policy under right-wing pressure.

Resident assistants are students who receive free room and board (a substantial perk) and a $675-per-semester stipend to live in dorms and counsel students. Students are referred to them during crises and difficulties, and for routine privilege requests.

The policy at the UW-Eau Claire sensibly forbade RAs from hosting religious, commercial or political events in their dorm rooms, and was adopted to ensure fairness and comfort for all students. The UW-Madison has a similar policy preventing RAs from using their own dorm rooms for such events, but most UW campuses approve RA use of their subsidized dorm rooms if the practice is not coercive.”

When someone becomes a state employee and takes on a position of authority over other students, all of their actions can no longer necessarily be considered “free speech.” They are engaging in “paid speech”–they are being paid by taxpayers to be on call to all students. Where is the line drawn between a publicly-paid authority figure inviting a student to pray and coercing the student to pray?

An RA using a tax-paid dorm room to hold bible study is tantamount to a professor at a public university inviting students to stay after class to worship. Professors have the right to be involved in religious or political activities on their own time, but not to use the classroom or their teaching authority to proselytize a captive audience at their mercy for approval and grades.

An interesting wrinkle in the case is the fact that the suing student, Steiger, belongs to a group called Student Impact, which actually encourages its members to become resident assistants in order to conduct bible studies! The practice is apparently common among similar evangelical campus groups. Changing the policy will give the green light to these evangelizing groups to consider the University of Wisconsin as fruitful recruiting territory. What a deal! Taxpayers will support and pay true believers to worm their way into positions of trust in order to proselytize other students!

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (Dec. 3) reported a disturbing incident at the UW-Eau Claire. When student Jacob Boer, now a senior, declined to participate in his RA’s bible study, the RA responded by giving him a bible (not exactly a sensitive gesture). Boer recalled the incident as alienating and uncomfortable, and warned the administration not to forget about students with minority views. Even religious parents paying steep prices to house their children at UW dorms might be disturbed if their student comes home converted from one brand of Christianity to another.

University of Wisconsin President Kevin Reilly announced this week that he is soliciting comments from the public on developing a systemwide policy on RAs. Freethinkers need to chime in, so that public administrators hear secular supporters, too, and do not capitulate to threats from the religious right. If you are a UW student, alum, or have other Wisconsin ties, please be sure to mention that fact.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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