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.

  • 3lemenope

    Well, that’ll fly in court about as well as a brick tied to a propeller hat.

    • Stan

      I love that phrase! I’m definitely going to steal it.

  • C Peterson

    On the one hand, a very positive aspect of college life is the way people with different ideas freely mix. Many religious people lose their religion when they are in college and are exposed to modern ideas for the first time.

    On the other hand, ghettos are a time tested way of segregating social undesirables.

    • UWIR

      My university (which is public) sent out a questionnaire to incoming freshman to help make good roommate pairing, and one of the question asked about religion. Despite saying that I was an atheist, they paired with a born-again Christian. To this day, I wonder whether they just ignored my response, or whether it was some sort of trick to make people think they were getting roommates with similar religious views, only to expose them to “diversity”.

  • Dan Weeks

    Yeah, its astonishing to me that the university itself would move to pay for this development. This seems to be something well within the rights and financial capability of religious institutions to do themselves, but instead they’re sticking the college with the bill. Seems deceptive and underhanded, par for the course, really, when it comes to religion.

  • lorimakesquilts

    It’s completely unnecessary. Students are very good at self-sorting. I attended Kansas State. There were seven dorms there, each with it’s own personality — the weird kids, the goody-two shoes girls, the sorority pledges/party girls, the drug dorm, the born-agains, etc., etc.

    • allein

      My dorm was nicknamed “The Nunnery” (I was placed there as a freshman, made some good friends on my hall, so most of us stayed there for 3 years until we were eligible for the senior housing units)…oddly enough, that was the one they converted to co-ed when they decided the one all-male dorm was not working out so well. They converted that one to co-ed and so had to convert one of the all-female dorms to compensate. (The school was about 65-70% female when I was there; out of 6 dorms, 2 were coed and 1 was all male at the time.)

    • cary_w

      Students are definitely good at self-sorting. When my son was considering going to Utah State University several of our friend warned us to make sure he didn’t get stuck in the “Morm dorms”. There is no official religious segregation going on, but apparently all the local Mormon kids flock to the same couple of dorms, so they can avoid getting exposed to any of that evil “diversity”, but if you live in the other dorms you will actually meet some kids from out of state, and even a few foreign students, and you can get at least the illusion of going somewhere with some actual diversity.

  • Justin Miyundees

    There shouldn’t be a problem with facilities like these just as long as they maintain separate but equal facilities for the non-white- I mean non-faithful. I mean, who could take issue with that?

    • 3lemenope

      And the twofer is even funny because Alabama.

  • allein

    My school had some individual halls within a couple of the dorms that were “substance-free*” or whatever, but not entire buildings (the school is too small for that, really), and none of those halls were devoted to religion (which they could have done since it was a private college affiliated with the Brethren church). I assume this is a decent sized school to be able to devote and entire dorm to this.

    *Technically we were a dry campus but if everyone in a room was over 21 you were allowed to have alcohol, and as long as you weren’t causing trouble, RAs weren’t going to bust anyone underage, either.

  • Richard Wade

    From the article linked at the end of the post, “other public schools with faith-based housing” (emphasis mine)

    “We’re just putting people together in a dorm who are faith-based, and want to keep their faith through college,”

    Ah, now I understand. The college administrations have seen hundreds of thousands of students from religious families come home from college declaring that they’re now atheists, and the parents swear they won’t send the younger siblings to that same college. It’s bad for repeat business. They have realized that mixing with a diverse and intelligent population is hazardous to faith, especially in the more intimate settings of dorms and other communal student housing, where they would share more candid information. So they want to keep the kids as cloistered and insular as possible.

    That might reduce the attrition rate a bit, but I don’t think it will work very well.

    • JA

      Yep, can’t have college kids being exposed to new ideas that lead them to question the world as they knew it when they were children.

      • allein

        What? Go to college and grow up? That’s crazy talk.

    • SeekerLancer

      I feel that’s the gist of it. Colleges are first and foremost businesses and they’re losing students to anti-intellectualism.

  • Erp

    It would be legal if it were not too closely connected to the state and were treated like any other non-campus housing for students. They tried in part by having it paid for by a separate foundation (the Troy Foundation); however,

    a. The land it is on is leased from the university. Probably legal if at fair market value. In turn the Newman Center within the complex is leased to the local Catholic diocese.

    b. How closely involved was the university in designing the building? In running the building?

    c. It seems the school has complete leeway in deciding who lives in this dorm including making decisions about religiosity. This is too close a connection I suspect to pass muster. I assume it also collects the housing fees and passes them to the foundation.

    I will say the Catholics and Baptists working together to build a dorm with a Catholic chapel wouldn’t have happened not too long ago.

    • allein

      Yeah, unless this is considered completely off-campus housing, but in that case the school would (should) have nothing to do with it. These students would just be commuters. And a lot of schools have rules about who can and cannot live off-campus. Unless you were a commuter, my school required underclassmen to live on campus, and seniors had to apply to get out of that (there aren’t too many options for off-campus housing where I went to school, though, so few do).

  • UWIR

    “Schmidt said students of non-Christian faiths will not be excluded “if there was space available” ”

    I’m confused as to why the first clause is in the future tense and the second is in the past tense. Has whether there is space available already been “determined”?

    • GeorgeLocke
      • UWIR

        Did you not notice that according to that page, “was” is not a subjunctive form? Furthermore, the subjunctive is for counterfactuals, not matters that are simply unknown. For instance, “If Romney were president”, since it’s known that Romney is not president, but “If Romney is thinking of running in 2016″, because it’s possible that he is. So the subjunctive would indicate that it’s already known that there will not be space available.

  • eonL5

    Just FYI re the “other public schools with faith-based housing,” my son goes to FL Inst. of Tech (FIT), mentioned in the linked article, and it is not a public college. I had no idea they have or are planning a “catholic dorm.” Yuck! But as they are not State funded, I guess it’s legal.

    • Erp

      Confirmed. Florida Inst. of Tech. is private (the article mentions secular not public). Texas A&M is public. Also University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For Illinois, the Catholic housing is explicitly private but certified (PCH) by the university and it appears that students negotiate with the PCH houses directly not through the university. The Texas A&M Kingsville Catholic facility is also private and is listed on the TAMUK housing web page as an off-campus choice (it also seems that living there gets an automatic exemption from single under 20′s living on campus [however under 20s living at home also have an automatic exemption and exemptions can also be gotten for many other reasons]).

      These are not the same situation as Troy.

  • Doug B.

    When I went to college they had interest based dorms – like people who planned to be doctors or social workers. I don’t see an issue with faith based living as long as they don’t ban a non-christian who wants to live there

    • Erp

      State organizations aren’t permitted to discriminate by religion (though they could on certain religious practices if there is a secular reason [you are unlikely to find Christian Scientist military doctors]). They can discriminate for other non-religious reasons such as encouraging the education of more doctors/social workers (or students over non-students in university housing). Also private universities have greater leeway than government run universities.

      Note if this was an academically themed dorm for those interested in studying religion where the prereqs for a preference were taking some courses in Religious Studies or a public service dorm (not limited to faith based public service as a prereq) or a no alcohol/drugs/smoking dorm it would probably be ok.

    • thfc1987

      Federal and state housing law explicitly prohibit religious discrimination.

  • cary_w

    Since when is a Newman Center on campus and funded, at least partially, by the university? Around here, there are Newman Centers at several of the public universities, but they are located on private property, usually right across the street from the campus, and operate completely separately from the university.

    • Spuddie

      Since Alabama decided the 1st Amendment was just an inconvenience to receiving some extra cash and marketing niche.

  • Daniel Brown

    Part of me is fine with rounding them up and sticking them together. But I don’t agree that they should automatically get the brand new nice location. I thought Jesus said to sell your possession. The meek shall inherit the earth. They should be given the old dorms to be more Christian-y.

  • ErickaMJohnson

    I hope someone from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster applies to live in this dorm.

  • Gus Snarp

    I always thought that a major point of dorms, and the reason that many Universities require freshmen to live in them as opposed to off campus housing, is that it makes all sorts of different students live together, get to know one another, understand each other’s differences, and learn to get along.

    Doesn’t this kind of dorm directly contradict that central idea of public higher education?

    It was also my understanding that drugs and alcohol were off limits in dorms already, though individuals frequently break the rules. I expect those rules will get broken in this dorm, as well, they may just have to work a little harder to not get caught.

    • thfc1987

      That is a major point of dorms, and I believe it’s mentioned toward the end of FFRF’s letter.

    • frankbellamy

      When I was in college at the University of Delaware, students over 21 were allowed to have alcohol in the dorms, so alcohol-free was a meaningful concept. It was also a way for students who didn’t want to break that rule to self-select into living in a dorm together.