God Was My Freshman Roommate


Later this week, Troy University, located 50 miles south of Montgomery, Alabama, will open the first ever faith-based dormitory at a public university. The brand-new building, which cost $11.8 million and will house nearly 400 students, has set off a debate about whether faith-based dorms represent a violation of the separation of church and state.

To live in the dorm, students must maintain “an active spiritual lifestyle and maintain an active engagement in a campus faith based organization.” Maintaining a GPA of at least 2.5, refraining from drug and alcohol use, and participating in community service projects are also requirements for living in the cushy new quarters. The building includes a Catholic ministry—which is being leased to the nearby Catholic archdiocese of Mobile by the university—a chapel, and an office for a local priest. Three Catholic and three Baptist residential assistants will live in the dormitory with the students.

Faith-based dorms are a novel solution to an increasingly vexing problem for religious leaders: attrition among young people. In some ways, they are an act of desperation. A recent survey from Barna, an evangelical polling group, found that 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background had stopped attending church after going regularly as children or teenagers. But more than any other religious institution, it is the Catholic Church that is hemorrhaging followers. A survey conducted last year found that 12 percent of Americans are former Catholics. It’s not hard to imagine that miniature ecosystems for religious students on college campuses could strengthen their ties to religion, which often fray over the course of four years; during college, many students have no social or parental pressure to go to church and some even begin questioning basic religious teachings.

Church-state separation watchdogs, however, are crying foul, saying Troy’s faith-based dormitory (which is, incidentally, the newest on campus) discriminates against nonreligious students.

On August 1, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that advocates on behalf of nonreligious Americans and tries to maintain the separation of church and state, sent a letter to Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins, saying that the school is in violation of the Alabama Fair Housing Act and the First Amendment.

“Troy University cannot legally evaluate the sincerity of students’ religious beliefs to determine which students are ‘religious enough’ to deserve a room in [the dorm],” writes Andrew Seidel, a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “The government has no business deciding whether a student ‘maintain[s] an active spiritual lifestyle.’”

Andy Ellis, a spokesman for the university, says the letter is under review, and the school is not yet sure whether it will take action. The school tried to work around the most obvious violations of the church and state doctrine by funding the dormitories through the Troy University Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization designed to attract private support for the university, rather than using government funds. The dormitory—aside from the space that is being leased to the archdiocese of Mobile—will continue to be operated and maintained by the university.

As recently as last week, there was some confusion about who would be eligible for residence in the dorm. In an article published on July 23, John Schmidt, senior vice chancellor for advancement and external relations, said that non-Christian students would be admitted "if there was space available.” A week later, the article was updated after the university spokesman clarified that Christians would not be prioritized over non-Christians.

Although the controversy over faith-based housing hasn’t moved beyond Troy, other secular (and, in some cases, public) schools have moved to introduce faith-based housing on their campus. Many of these programs, including Troy’s, are operated through Newman Centers, which are Catholic ministries hosted on non-Catholic campuses. The residence program at Troy is somewhat unusual because it does not have an exclusively Catholic focus. But in a state like Alabama, which is more than three-quarters Protestant, a broader emphasis was probably unavoidable.

The Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana has an even more ambitious goal: In addition to instilling students with Catholic values, they suggest, living in community with other Catholics can nudge them toward a religious vocation. The Newman Student Housing Fund’s website boasts, “[the Newman Center residence] has had 84 vocations to the seminary or convent in the last 10 years. That’s 8 students a year! Imagine what can be cultivated if we are able to take this concept around the country.”

Faith-based residences also allow public or private secular universities to compete with religiously affiliated colleges, an option that is particularly appealing for religious parents. “They want their children to live in a safe place, in a place where academics are first and foremost, but values are also important,” Chancellor Jack Hawkins told AL.com in late July.

Whether the other faith-based dorms will be swept into the debate remains to be seen. Seibel says that FFRF is currently investigating Texas A&M–Kingsville and Florida Institute of Technology, both of which will open faith-based dormitories this fall. The FFRF has yet to address a public complaint against either of these universities, as they did with Troy. Even among conservative religious bloggers, opinions are still up in the air. One worried that faith-based dorms would result in the “ghettoization of Christianity on campus.”

According to Ellis, the aim of Troy’s faith-based dorm is to foster community between students of different faiths, not to produce more priests. But he didn’t say why a residence hall—rather than, say, an interfaith religious center—was the best forum for such interactions. Seidel argues that beyond the basic legal issues raised by the dormitory, establishing a residence hall for people of faith goes against the spirit of a liberal arts education. “College is not about maintaining a small circle of people who believe the exact same thing you do,” he says. “College is about getting out there and experiencing new things and doing things that challenge you.”

For the FFRF, the problem has an easy fix. Troy just needs to open the new dormitory to all students, regardless of their faith. But it’s unclear how Troy’s administration will respond. Ellis chuckled, when asked whether the school had anticipated the criticism. “It wasn’t completely unexpected that something like this could happen,” he says. “I’ll just say we feel good about providing this opportunity.”

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