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Bibles before beer: faith-based dorms

Newman Center community director Kelsey Burgans stands outside the faith-based dormitory on the campus of Troy University in Troy, Ala. Tucked in rural southeast Alabama, Troy University has opened something that’s a rarity for a public college in the United States: A faith-based dorm community where daily Bible studies are common and beer drinking is strictly forbidden. AP Photo

Newman Center community director Kelsey Burgans stands outside the faith-based dormitory on the campus of Troy University in Troy, Ala. Tucked in rural southeast Alabama, Troy University has opened something that’s a rarity for a public college in the United States: A faith-based dorm community where daily Bible studies are common and beer drinking is strictly forbidden. AP Photo

TROY, Ala. — Tucked in rural southeast Alabama, Troy University has opened something that’s a rarity for a public college in the United States: A faith-based dorm community where daily Bible studies are common and beer drinking is strictly forbidden.

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 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.

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