Bibles before beer in faith-based dorms in Alabama


Residents live by rules that include a ban on alcohol, mandatory community service work and a minimum grade point average. In one lobby, a wall is covered with fliers inviting students to Christian worship services and a daily prayer session, and slips of paper with Bible verses sit on the welcome desk.

Jorge Solis said he's gotten used to walking past fellow students sitting in common areas reading Bibles or discussing how faith intersects with life.

"I love seeing that," said Solis, a Catholic and sophomore resident adviser from Pell City who keeps a Bible on his desk. "Many people are here to minister to others."

While private universities with religious affiliation often impose rules in accordance with a particular faith, such living arrangements are rare at public universities, renewing a frequent debate about the separation of church and state.

Indeed, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has complained the dorms are an unconstitutional since religion is at the core. However, there have been few complaints aside from a column in the student newspaper and a handful of social media posts. No protests have been held on campus, which has had a nondenominational religious chapel for years.

University officials defend the arrangement as being more about promoting values and accommodating faithful students than proselytization, and they say a survey found that 75 percent of Troy students said faith was important to their college experience.

The requirements are tough, but apparently also appealing to many students: The community, with room for 376 students in two new brick buildings, is nearly full. The dorms are open to all students, but would-be residents must apply and submit recommendations from a minister, school counselor or community leader. The dorms are coed, with men and women on alternating floors.

Located just up a hill from fraternity row, the dorms' official name is the Newman Center. The community is part of a national network of Catholic student ministries named for Cardinal John Henry Newman, the namesake of a foundation that promotes Catholic ministries on college campuses.

Rev. Den Irwin, the campus Catholic minister and parish priest in Troy, said Newman Centers are located at many public universities and typically operate as campus ministries, but the Troy complex is "pretty unusual" for its size and housing accommodations.

"We can laugh, we can joke, we can eat, but we can also pray and learn," he said.

The university has about 6,500 students on its main campus at Troy, which is covered with trees and has a large fountain with a statue of a Trojan at the center. A building boom has wiped out some old campus landmarks and created new ones like a spacious dining hall with so many foreign flags it resembles a miniature United Nations.

The school is leasing the land for the faith-based dorms to the nonprofit Troy University Foundation, a private fundraising arm that constructed the buildings at a cost of almost $12 million. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile, in turn, is leasing a section of one dorm that includes an activity room, a small kitchen and a room that will become a 24-hour-a-day chapel. The entire complex is referred to as the Newman Center.

While the dorm is part of a Roman Catholic campus ministry, residents say the community is overwhelmingly Protestant, just like Alabama and the rest of the Deep South. Applicants to live in the dorms are not required to state a religious preference, and residents say there's a smattering of others faith represented in the community including Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism.

Shanshan Duan, 24, grew up in a Buddhist family in southwest China. She is living in the faith community during her first year in a graduate English program at Troy. She said she is enjoying learning about American culture and faiths, and hasn't felt pressured to become a Christian.

"It's not been a problem," said Duan.

Kelsey Burgans, the community director, said the biggest complaints so far have been about typical college stuff, not religious strong-arming or rules violations.

"We have had people come in and say, 'My roommate is so messy,'" said Burgans, also an assistant campus minister for Catholics.

The university initially said churchgoers and students active in campus ministries would get preference in filling slots in the dorms, but it backed away following complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Still, foundation attorney Andrew Seidel is concerned the university is making decisions based on students' religion.

"It has no need to be looking into these things and it has no power to look into these things," said Seidel.

Seidel said he was encouraged that some non-Christians are living at the Newman Center, but even that raises a question because "token religious minorities" could become an evangelization target for Christians.

The faith-based housing community at Troy is one of only four nationwide in the network of more than 500 Newman Centers, said Matt Zerrusen, president and chief executive of the Newman Student Housing Fund, which developed the idea before the Troy University Foundation took over the project.

The University of Illinois has had a Newman faith dorm for about 50 years, Zerrusen said, and the Newman Fund recently opened others at Florida Tech and Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said Zerrusen.

Zerrusen said he knows of no other faith-based dorms at a public university in U.S., although the University of West Virginia has broken ground on one proposed by Presbyterians.

Junior Stella Burak grew up as one of the few Catholics in her east Alabama hometown of Tallassee, but she got involved with the campus Catholic ministry when she enrolled at Troy. She said moving into the Newman Center felt natural.

"It's nice to have a spirit moving on campus that you fit in with," she said.

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