Are Faith-Based Dorms at Public Universities Legal?

Troy University in Alabama has a very religious student body (shocking, I tell you).

So they’re about to open a 376-bed dorm at a cost of $11,800,000 that will give preference to religious students:

The new facility gives preference to students who maintain an active spiritual lifestyle and are actively engaged in a campus faith-based organization.

Residents are required to engage at least semi-annually in a community-service or service-learning project that is tied to a church, such as food or clothing drive.

The building will also house a (Catholic) Newman Center, as well as three Catholic and three Baptist resident assistants.

What if you’re religious but not a Christian?

[Senior vice chancellor for advancement and external relations John] Schmidt said students of non-Christian faiths will not be excluded “if there was space available” and that university officials have discussed the prospect of catering more to non-Christians.

They took that one back quickly…

However, a university spokesman said July 30 the university will not give preference to Christians over non-Christians.

Okay, but the university is still giving preference to religious students over non-religious students. It doesn’t matter that a private foundation is paying for the building; the dorm is still owned and operated and advertised by the school, for the promotion of religion. That’s the illegal part.

That’s the gist of the argument the Freedom From Religion Foundation is making in a letter (PDF) sent to the school’s chancellor this week:

Troy University’s housing website advertises the Newman Center as faith-based housing, and says, “Preference will be given to students who maintain an active spiritual lifestyle and maintain an active engagement in a campus faith based organization.” This advertisement evidences a preference for religious students at the expense of non-religious ones, a violation of state and federal housing laws.

Troy University cannot legally evaluate the sincerity of students’ religious beliefs to determine which students are “religious enough” to deserve a room in Newman Center. The government has no business deciding whether a student “maintain[s] an active spiritual lifestyle.”

Students who wish to live in the Newman Center are required to “be respectful of diversity,” but the facility itself is not respectful of diversity. Its sole purpose is to create a space for devoutly religious [students], thereby excluding the nonreligious and religious students who are not devout enough.

FFRF doesn’t mention this, but I’m thinking it won’t be long before we hear from, say, a gay Christian who is rejected by the Christian groups on campus and therefore rejected from living in the dorms.

There’s an easy fix to this problem: Just make the dorm secular and allow all students access to it. Go ahead and keep the GPA requirements. Continue to make the dorm drug and alcohol free. Make sure the students are performing community service of some kind. All that is fine.

But the moment you tell an atheist that she can’t live in the dorms because she doesn’t hold acceptable religious beliefs, the public university crosses the line.

(Incidentally, there are other public schools with faith-based housing. As far as I can tell, they haven’t been challenged in court. ***Edit***: Commenter Erp explains here why those situations are not the same as what’s happening at Troy)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.