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Aug 05 2013

Faith-based dorm in a public university

Troy University, a public university in Alabama, has just opened a new dorm that will accommodate students who are seeking a “faith-based collegiate experience”.

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 new housing facility is non-denominational, requiring residents to “be respectful of diversity,” but it will feature a 2,300-square-foot Newman Center leased and operated by the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile.

Newman Centers are Catholic ministries on non-Catholic universities. Troy’s will include a common area for meetings, a facility for a priest and a chapel.

“The whole idea behind the Newman Center is to help student live their faith, facilitate community service and build and foster interfaith discussions,” Schmidt said.

The residence facility will also host three Catholic and three Baptist resident advisers.

The university seems to be hoping to avoid Establishment Clause violations by the way the dorms were funded.

The five-acre property is leased from the university by Troy’s foundation, a private, non-profit entity, which paid for the two buildings that comprise the housing facility, using funds from a local bank.

That avoids legal conflicts between religion and the public dollars that Troy uses for operational expenses. Troy’s foundational money is comprised of private donations, not tax dollars.

I don’t think that will save it from legal challenge. The Lemon test (at least the entanglement prong) and the endorsement test both seem to be violated here. By going out of its way to create a faith-based dorm, however it is funded, the university is clearly signaling that it endorses religion over non-religion.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    DonDueed

    Look on the bright side — at least it will get some of those annoying religious nuts out of the dorms where the same people live.

  2. 2
    DonDueed

    Arrgh… that should read SANE people. Stupid fingers.

  3. 3
    Pierce R. Butler

    Next up – special dorms for white people! And for heteros!

  4. 4
    Trebuchet

    Wait until someone puts up a special dorm for Muslims. Or some Muslims try to live in this one, obeying all the rules, of course.

  5. 5
    brucegee1962

    Eh, I’m not seeing enough here to get my dudgeon up. How exactly is this different from an Engineering dorm, a French-speaking dorm, a Music dorm, or any other common-interest facility? Or if it’s really a problem, it shouldn’t be a problem to just get rid of the “dorm” name and rename it as off-campus housing, without really changing anything.

  6. 6
    lanir

    Engineering isn’t a sticky issue with thousands of years of abuse, discrimination, torture, etc. behind it. Religious history holds the classic “go large” version of just about any antisocial behavior you can think of. And there’s always pressure to bring some of those “traditions” back into practice.

    I wouldn’t necessarily have any issue with a dorm that allowed people to self-identify as any particular thing and go there. But this one has particular ways you’re forced to express your religion (community service) as well as oversight (Catholic and Baptist live-in advisors). It’s obviously intended to foster a particular way of doing things and most likely designed to let parents keep some religious control over their kids while they’re away at a public university.

  7. 7
    Trebuchet

    It’s been four decades since my college days, but one of the things I remember is the special privileges accorded to fraternities and sororities, all of which had official “whites only” policies at the time. (I expect there were special ones for minorities on some campuses, but not on mine.) What’s the situation on that today? Has it changed completely or just gone underground?

  8. 8
    Corvus illustris

    For openers, there is no Constitutional prohibition against an establishment of engineering, French, or music. If this dorm-like entity just totally disentangled itself from a public U. and were treated as an off-campus entity–possibly recognized* by Troy U.–then of course no problem. But that doesn’t seem to be what we’re looking at.

    *Even here there’s a sticky point. Many universities will recognize frats and sororities that have been “historically predominantly X,” where X is some sect or ethnos, but will balk at specific exclusionary policies. Federal grants can be at stake.

  9. 9
    Corvus illustris

    The five-acre property is leased from the university by Troy’s foundation, a private, non-profit entity, which paid for the two buildings that comprise the housing facility, using funds from a local bank.

    That avoids legal conflicts between religion and the public dollars that Troy uses for operational expenses. Troy’s foundational money is comprised of private donations, not tax dollars.

    Will this make any difference, given that Troy has always been public? There are a couple of old Eastern U’s–William & Mary and Rutgers–that have become public and have preserved some religious ties. Rutgers has two conspicuous decidedly-Protestant chapels, though those may belong to the original Dutch-Reformed entity, and W&M may have a similar Episcopalian connection. But I don’t see how this “private” foundation at Troy would have that kind of escape hatch from Constitutional restrictions.

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