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Co-ed dorm bill starts moral quarrel

IT'S GOOD to be back in Charlottesville. I learned a lot during my semester in South America. One of the most important things was simply how not to take things too seriously. It's a skill that many of us need to learn over again. I certainly needed to. But more and more, people, particularly politicians, are increasingly uptight about a great many issues.

This week, Arizona Rep. Jean McGrath (R) proposed a bill that would prohibit opposite sex dorm room visitors at state universities, making exceptions only for immediate family. Especially in an election year, we begin to hear a lot about a supposed "lack of morals" in America. To listen to a lot of politicians' rhetoric, they would have us believe that America in 2000 is a modern-day Gomorrah. But things aren't as bad as you might think. The United States isn't experiencing a "moral backslide." But the new Puritanism is on the move, or at the very least, growing more vocal with each passing month. Unless something is done now to stop this disturbing trend, U.S. society could become a thoroughly uncomfortable place in coming years. If individuals or groups want to address moral ills, they must do so in a constructive way, or their cause loses all meaning.

During the past 20 years, this movement has taken an active role in American politics. Until recently, it largely steered clear of direct interference in the lives of college students. But last September, McGrath referred to co-ed dorms as "immoral," and claimed that such dorms cause larger social problems. "We spend a great deal of time fighting teenage pregnancies. We're working very hard to get people off of welfare," she said. "I think the universities are contributing to these problems with their co-ed dormitories." ("State lawmaker tells regents co-ed dorms are immoral," Arizona Daily Wildcat, Sept. 24, 1999).

McGrath didn't stop there. She also issued a proposal to prohibit students from visiting sexually explicit sites on university computers. Of course, if you want to look at such Web sites while sitting in the middle of a public area, that's your business. The notion of someone logging onto an adult site in the middle of Clemons is actually pretty funny. But these computers are a public domain, and should not have to face such regulations, especially when the audience is almost entirely adult - unlike public libraries, for example. McGrath and others are trying to force their own version of "values" into the lives of others.

Modern-day Puritans would do well to direct their energy into dealing with more pressing concerns. But that would make too much sense. After all, these are the people who want sex ed. eliminated from public school curricula. These are the people who want "The Wizard of Oz" banned from school libraries because it "promotes witchcraft." These are the people who don't celebrate Halloween because it "encourages a belief in the occult." They may be weird, but they speak with a loud voice, and our leaders are willing to listen to their demands.

Fundamentalist religious groups inserting themselves into the political forum is not new. It's been going on, in various forms, since the dawn of American history. The real injustice here is that the rest of society has to listen to its supposed lack of morality, when that really isn't the case.

Few people would describe college campuses as pillars of good behavior. But McGrath's comments don't even make sense. As college students, for the most part, we've arrived at where we are because we've made the right choices in life. If she wants to seek out the source of the problems she describes, she should look no further than the root of most societal ills: bad parenting. But that might take a little more effort and insight into the issue.

There is nothing wrong with an individual or a group trying to solve a societal problem, even if it is a moral issue. A lot of good has come out of charitable efforts sponsored by churches and other civic groups across the country. Certainly, a reduction in abortions or teen pregnancies is a very desirable goal. The problem with individuals such as McGrath is that they always choose such ridiculous battles to fight.

(Timothy DuBoff's column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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