The Christian dorm at the public university

New York Times News ServiceOctober 7, 2013 

— There are many clues that life at the newest residence hall on the campus of Troy University is not centered on parties and beer.

In the lobby, students with Bibles gather to offer Christian testimony. On a dorm-room door, a chalkboard holds a passage from Psalms.

And in the 2,300-square-foot Catholic-run ministry center, evenings are given over to clergy-led discussions on the meaning of God and a few good-natured rounds of “Stump the Priest.”

Citing reports from students who say they are hungry for more faith-based options on campus and national surveys that show a strong interest in spirituality among college freshman, officials at Troy, Alabama’s third-largest public university, this semester opened the Newman Center residence hall, a roomy 376-bed dormitory that caters to students who want a residential experience infused with religion.

Kosher dorms, Christian fraternity houses and specialized housing based on values have become part of modern college life. But the dorm on this campus of 7,000 students is among a new wave of religious-themed housing that constitutional scholars and others say is pushing the boundaries of how much a public university can back religion.

Officials said the dorm met a growing demand and did not conflict with the Constitution.

“It is not about proselytizing, but about bringing a values-based opportunity to this campus,” said Troy’s chancellor, Jack Hawkins Jr. “The parents are the most excited. I’ve had calls to get me to intervene to get their son or daughter in there.”

Others are less convinced.

“This is too cozy,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, a founder and president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “We are very concerned about this idea of religious-based dorms. This is very insidious.”

The foundation, based in Madison, Wis., argues that the Newman hall’s purpose was to create a space that favored religious students and thus was a violation of the Constitution.

The dormitory is part of a new push into housing by the Catholic ministry that runs hundreds of Newman Centers on non-Catholic university campuses.

This year, the Newman Student Housing Fund, a private Catholic development company, helped open two residence halls at public universities, the one at Troy and one at the Texas A&M University campus in Kingsville. They are modeled on the Newman Hall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which opened in 1926 and houses 586 students, most of them Catholic.

The company, which also opened a dorm at the private Florida Institute of Technology this semester, has plans to expand to a public university in Florida next year and to keep rolling out a dorm or two each year over the next decade, said Matt Zerrusen, the president of the fund.

The South, with its large population of churchgoers, is particularly ripe. “It’s definitely an evangelization opportunity, which is why we went down there,” he said.

Zerrusen said he was sensitive to the balance public universities have to achieve when trying to mix religion and public financing. “There are certain things they can’t do,” he said. “As a faith-based facility, you don’t want to exclude anybody.”

Troy University developed the dorm with plans from Zerrusen’s company but then took control, arranging the financing and construction. That point is noted on the company’s website, which says the Newman fund is no longer involved in the management of the hall.

The university’s private foundation financed the $11.8 million facility with help from a local bank and leased the land from the university for $1. The Archdiocese of Mobile rents space inside to run a chapel and the ministry center.

The project began with John Schmidt, senior vice chancellor for advancement and external relations and an active member of the Roman Catholic Church.

In early public discussions about the dorm, Schmidt said the university would give preference to students who were Christian and maintained an active spiritual life. Students of non-Christian faiths were not to be excluded “if there was space available,” he said in interviews with local news outlets.

Schmidt, in an interview, said he had misstated the rules. The dorm is open to all students who meet some minimum requirements.

Religion is central to many of the 2,200 students who live on campus, and most of the residents in the dorm are practicing Protestants. Announcements about Bible studies are written in chalk in front of buildings on campus, and the new hall is a short walk to what people here call Church Row, an area that is home to several Christian campus ministries.

Nearly 48 percent of Troy University freshmen said they attended religious services frequently, compared with a national average of about 29 percent of freshmen at public four-year institutions, according to the 2012 annual survey of college freshman prepared by the University of California, Los Angeles.

That survey and other recent examinations of religion among young people show that while there is a growing interest in spirituality on college campuses, only about a third of those surveyed nationwide identified themselves as religious. That figure is almost certainly higher in the Deep South.

Residents said the dorm provided a way for people of different faiths - or no faith at all - to mingle and learn more about each other’s beliefs. Some said they found support and guidance living among people who shared Bible-based values.

“We don’t want to offend people, but we don’t want to be offended,” said Stella Burak, 20. “We have to be tolerant of so many things, but nobody has to be tolerant of religion.”

Like the school administrators who supported the dorm, students argue that the Newman hall is not, as it was originally marketed, a dorm designed for Christians on the campus of a public university.

“It is faith-based housing, but faith can be anything from atheism to Catholicism,” said Dom Godwin, a 19-year-old Catholic. Less than 3 percent of Alabama’s population is Catholic.

But some constitutional scholars are not convinced.

“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,” said 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. “Two constitutional wrongs don’t make a constitutional right.”

Providing dorms based on a set of values is one thing, he said, but providing housing so closely tied to religion is another.

“The reason we don’t hear about this happening at other public universities is that they know they can’t do it,” Haynes said. “A university really can’t take sides in religion, especially in a way that gives certain benefits to people of faith.”

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service