The 2022-2023 school year is well under way for thousands of students across the nation. With it, many are hoping for a year of renewal and change. Broadly defined, universities are obligated to provide their students with reasonable religious accommodations so they can practice their respective faith.
The first amendment of the constitution includes the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, both of which prevent public institutions from endorsing one religion and preventing them from enacting measures that would prevent students from observing their religion.
If a student requests a reasonable accommodation, the school is expected to try and provide it for them.
Some examples of religious accommodations include:
- Excusing absences for religious observances or activities
- Waiving certain dress codes and school uniform requirements
- Allowing students the right to pray in a non-disruptive manner
- Allowing students to express their faith in school/school assignments
- Allowing students to discuss religion with other students
- Allowing the distribution of religious material or display religious images
- Using school facilities for religious events or activities
- Providing meals or food to accommodate dietary restrictions
The student or group should meet with their administration in order to request a reasonable accommodation. Working closely with the administration of your school or organization is crucial because it is up to them to foster an atmosphere where students can practice their faith freely.
In order to avoid obstacles with the administration, it’s just as important that you do not act independently. Furthermore, the school might already have provisions in place for the issues you want to address.
This is an area of law that has been heavily litigated with schools arguing that opening the door for certain accommodations might lead to them being forced to make accommodations that impose a burden on the administration in the future. For instance, it is not burdensome to permit a Muslim student who wears the hijab to dress in a manner consistent with the school’s dress code or uniform. It is not a burden to grant a Jewish student an excused absence to observe their new year. Allowing students of any faith to have a designated space to pray on campus should not be a burden.
We already observe and accommodate religious holidays and traditions for Christian students, why should this be any different for Muslim, Jewish, or students of other faiths? Although many schools have limited resources and finances, many of the accommodations they provide do not require much time or effort on the administration’s part.
Moreover, students who feel as if their faith or belief is not respected are likely to have a greater negative impact on the school. These students would be less inclined to do well socially and academically, and in some cases, transfer schools entirely. School is already hard enough trying to balance good grades and participating in extracurricular activities – the last thing students need is leadership to denying them reasonable accommodations for practicing their faith.
While there is a more conservative argument that schools are institutions where everyone is going “to learn,” and they are not meant to delve into issues greater than that, it’s unrealistic to expect people to just separate their religious identity from their academic identity as a student.
Our beliefs influence the way we learn and interact with other students. Sharing and creating a sense of community with one another does not detract from the learning environment; rather, it enhances learning. Every student is endowed with these rights and schools should do what they can to meet the student’s needs.
In general, schools and public institutions do their best to provide a safe learning environment for students. However, that does not mean we don’t continue to see cases where a student was asked to remove her hijab or a crackdown on religious speech.
It’s up to students to continue to advocate on behalf of their community. Your administration may not have a specific accommodation because it was never brought up to them in the past. Practicing grace and being respectful is effective in reaching common ground.
While we have created a baseline for accommodations that students should receive, we have room to grow. As long as students support each other and continue to speak up about their concerns we can move towards a more inclusive learning environment.