Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bibles over Beer: The faith-based dorm at Troy University.

At the start of this fall semester, Troy University, a public institution in Alabama opened a new resident dorm named The Newman Center. On the school’s website, the new facility is described as housing 376 students who have the following qualifications:

Persons applying for this type of living must meet and be willing to maintain the following requirements:
1.     Must have and maintain a minimum 2.50 grade point average overall and each semester. High school GPA will be considered for incoming freshmen.
2.     Must be respectful of diversity.
3.     Must refrain from the use of alcohol or illegal drugs while in the facility.
4.     Must maintain the standards of the “Trojan Way”.
5.     Must be engaged in some type of community service or service learning project at least semi-annually.

What the website does not state is that the Newman Center was originally advertised as a pro-faith dorm, where the majority of residents hold high religious values. When the dorm officially opened on August 9th, the website did include language that preferred religious students to non-religious students during the application process to this dorm. In addition, the billing for students that resided in the Newman Center dorms listed the dorm as faith-based housing.

Senior Vice Chancellor for Advancement and External Relations at Troy, John Schmidt originally said the dorms would give preference to students of Christian faiths as applicants. A university spokesman later said no preference would be given to Christians over any other religions. Since then, the public university has made statements declaring that they do not prefer religious students to non-religious students during the housing application process, but they have yet to declare the dorm as completely secular.

The decision was made to build this faith-based dorm after a poll among students reflected a heightened level of religiosity at Troy University( 70-75% of students valued faith in their lives). Therefore, officials claim that the dorm was a result of a growing demand and is not a constitutional violation. There has been a growing demand for more public religious organizations on campuses across the country, but a faith-based dorm is different than a kosher cafeteria or Campus ministry organization.

The Newman Center is part of a national network of Catholic student ministries that promotes campus ministries. President and CEO of the Newman Student Housing Fund, Matt Zerrusen stated that, “The faith-based housing community at Troy is one of only four nationwide in the network of more than 500 Newman Center” and that he does not know of any other faith-based dorms at public universities in the United States. While the dorm represents a national organization that promotes catholic ministries, it is not that shocking that public universities steer away from establishing this type of facility.

Despite the steps that the university has taken to announce the dorm as non -religiously affiliated, are they abiding by the First amendment of the constitution? Organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation think so. The WWFR is dedicated to preserving the separation between church and state and attorney Andrew Seidel believes more changes need to be implemented at Troy to have this dorm on campus without legal consequences. He notes that even though minority religions are accepted and live in the Newman Center, the dorm remains predominantly Christian with the presence of a ministry and three Baptist RA’s. The university has yet to respond with an official statement that proves the Newman Center coincides with the separation of church and state and does not violate fair housing laws.

          The primary purpose of building this dorm for students was to provide a pro-faith space for students to live in. Right of the bat, this establishes religion over non-religion because of the preference given to religious students in this space. As a public university, Troy does not have the right to establish any religion regardless of whether or not it is only for one facility on a campus of 7,000 students. Even though they changed the original requirements of resident applicants and removed the pro-faith message of the dorm, the religious foundation will always remain because of the cause that the Newman Center Student Housing Foundations stands for.

             Nicholas Cervera, an attorney for the school, said in September there are no requirements that students wishing to live in the dorms practice any particular faith, including atheists.
"An atheist has faith. That faith is that there is no supreme being," he said. "It's as much of a faith as Catholicism or Southern Baptist." What Cervera fails to clarify is the difference between faith and belief, a distinction that continues to cause confusion as to whether or not this dorm is legal. Charles C. Haynes, the director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington said, “If you set it up as a faith-based dorm and you expand it to include all faiths, you are still making a constitutional mistake.” Moreover, the dorm is so closely tied to religious values in general and it is unclear as to whether the original purpose of the Newman Center establishes religion over neutrality.

There have been no protests on campus and for the most part the residents that live in the Newman Center embrace the space they have for sharing beliefs of all types, not solely beliefs stemming from religion. I think that the fact that this dorm was originally built to promote evangelization (in a sense) cannot be ignored because it was built on a public university’s campus. Even though the rules have changed and more applicants are being accepted, it is still a housing selection process that is based on faith and is inherently discriminatory. While the university definitely violated the Establishment Clause in the beginning of the Newman Center’s residential existence, they claim that the changes they have made are neutral enough.

What do you think? Does the Newman Center favor religion over non-religion? Have their policy changes for the dorm exempt effectively promoted religious neutrality?


Liz L. said...

Ideally, a religious organization can sponsor a residential building at a public university; however, no restrictions or prerequisites may be placed on the use of that facility by the sponsoring organization. I believe that it is important to recognize that this is a Southern institution, where most people are Christian (Baptists). It is absolutely possible to design a residence hall that is attune to the special needs of Southern Baptist students without being blatantly discriminatory. The errors here were purely administrative. By setting conditions for residents that do not discriminate, I do not see this as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Jennie M. said...

I do not think a public university can constitutionally create a faith-based dorm on its campus. This is entirely different from a campus ministry, as Blair points out. Even if non-religous and non-Christian students can now live there, the dorms will be Christian-oriented and will still likely exclude and discriminate against other students.

I think having a substance free dorm with certain regulations the students must first agree to is a positive and constitutional thing to have on a college campus. A faith-based dorm at a public university, however, is an establishment of religion.

Dan W said...

I fail to see both the need for a faith based dorm or the constitutionality of such an establishment. Promoting the substance-free lifestyle is an admirable cause, but why must substance free living be tied to a specific religion? This is a clear instance of favoring religion over non-religion and also religion over religion. I suggest Troy University use the dorm for all students or use the dorm for substance free housing, not religious housing.

Benjamin S said...

I think the creation of a faith-based dorm at a public university is acceptable as long as the students sign up to live there, much like how Bucknell’s residential colleges operate. This works as long as the building itself is open to all religions. However I do think it is imperative to allow a non-religious student equal opportunity to live there if they desire to. Giving the religious students preference is wrong. In fact I feel like having a mixture of religious and non-religious students in a dorm that operates like residential college is beneficial. However, that then begins to just sound like a regular dorm to me. Ultimately, I think a faith based dorm could be non-discriminatory, but in practice I feel like it would fail in doing so.