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R-e-s-p-e-c-t for Religious and Non-Religious Identity

Student Success Civic Engagement Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Senior Level
December 1, 2020 Becca Hartman-Pickerill Interfaith Youth Core

JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 4. November 2020

Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

This is the final piece in the series on the three parts of civic religious pluralism. The first asked, how can we approximate a measurement of pluralism on campus? The second explored mutually inspiring relationships and the third discussed common action for the common good. To close this series out I’ll focus on the first part of pluralism, respect for religious and non-religious identities.

Is it necessary to state that respect for other’s worldview identities is foundational to building civic religious pluralism on campus and beyond? Public discourse and contemporary culture would answer, "Yes!" One might guess that given the diversity of the U.S. and the fact that religious freedom is written into the Constitution, Americans must be expert at this first part of pluralism, but opinion polls, social science research, and the nightly news reveal the gaps in this fundamental area of American life.

Becca Hartman-PickerillRecent longitudinal findings from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) reveal that worldview minority students both perceive and experience lower levels of welcome than worldview majority students. This is troubling, given that a sense of belonging and welcome is tied to students’ educational outcomes, retention, and ultimately alumni donations. In this expansive longitudinal study across 122 colleges and universities, students responded to their perception of the campus as welcoming, their experience of religious prejudice, and how often, if at all, they felt pressure to limit the expression of their worldview identity. In response to aparticular question, non-religious, Catholic and Evangelical students felt the same lack of welcome or acceptance. Respect is a foundation of any relationship, including interfaith relationships. Interfaith relationships were among the strongest predictors of a students’ growth in pluralism orientation, the “extent to which students are accepting of others with different worldviews, believe that worldviews share many common values, consider it important to understand the differences between world religions, and believe it is possible to have strong relationships with diverse others and still hold to their own worldview” (Rockenbach et al, 2019, p. 10). Given its importance, how can we better understand respect and how to cultivate it in a campus environment?

Respect Does Not Mean Agreement

The limits of respect are often tested at the point of deep disagreement; that is also the point where a commitment to respect is most necessary. The work of civic religious pluralism, at play in everything from running a city council or tackling a problem like food insecurity to public community celebrations, will inherently bring disagreement. IFYC’s methodology often includes gathering around an act of service, because before we dig into our deep disagreements, it is helpful to anchor ourselves in our shared values. Our work starts at shared values but does not end there. Through ongoing relationships built upon a respect for one another’s worldview identities we can wrestle with those things on which we do not agree.

When I ask a question in a dialogue that reveals my own ignorance, the respect that I have established with my dialogue partners gives them the patience to call me in. When I am in conversation with a pro-life Catholic friend, being pro-choice myself, my respect for her and the ways she lives out her faith drives my ethos of curiosity and deep listening. In a recent webinar on “The Day After the Election” John Wood, Jr., a Christian and Republican passionately advocated for what he called “the noncontradiction between” passionately advocating for the things you believe to be politically urgent, and on the other hand, building the fabric of our relationships across the country. The fact that he has to name those two things as being not inherently contradicting, reveals how interwoven an individuals’ values, actions, and perception of threat can become.

Respect Includes Accommodation Under the Law

Colleges and universities often start the conversation about respect for worldview identities at accommodation. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. While expression and assembly have implications for religious identity, it is the Establishment Clause, a prohibition against “promoting one religion over others” and the Free Exercise Clause “restricting an individual’s religious practices” that get the most attention (Egemenoglu, 2020). Public universities tend to be particularly attentive to Constitutional guidance around not prohibiting one’s religious practice, which provides basic guardrails for respect.

For instance, the University of North Carolina-Charlotte grounds its absence request policy in state law. Their policy provides an overview of definitions for critical terms (like "reasonable accommodation") and proper procedures for requesting a religiously-based absence, with forms for requesting an accommodation available online. Helping people know what is available to them and access accommodation is one step toward helping them feel respected and cared for. This “procedure and practice” guide for the University of Texas offers a complete compilation of the campus contacts, policies, terms, and procedures for religious accommodations. The Bias Response Team at Baylor University notes what type of incidents they respond to (including religious discrimination) and offers clear examples of religious discrimination within a campus context. For additional examples, explore this resource from IFYC (Interfaith Youth Core, 2020).

Respect Is Also a Matter of Culture

Respect connotes more than that which is required under the law. Respect for one’s religious, spiritual, and secular identity presupposes a knowledge of both that identity and what it entails. Religious minority students often find themselves educating others – peers and campus professionals about their tradition. IDEALS findings suggest that proactive signals of respect for religious identity, like Halal, Kosher, vegetarian meals marked in the cafeteria, or space to engage in one’s personal and collective religious and spiritual practices, does more than even help religious students feel welcome. Those public and proactive signs also signal to other students that taking worldview identity seriously is important to the institution and increases appreciative attitudes for worldview identities among all students. How can campuses become to cultivate this culture of respect?

The University of La Verne’s calendar does an excellent job of highlighting and explaining significant religious days for a wide variety of religious groups, including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and pagan worldviews. For many of the holidays listed, links are provided for access to more information. Certain holy days or holidays require students to abstain from eating during certain time periods of the day (for instance, while the sun is up). UC-Santa Cruz offers extended Late Night hours with halal options during Ramadan for Muslim students to eat in campus dining halls after their fast ends. To welcome and support their diverse student body, UC-Berkeley’s Housing Office lists several housing options available for students that need them, including single-gender floors, housing locations with proximity to places of worship, and semi-private bathrooms. All of these can be requested based upon a student’s religious or cultural beliefs.

We can certainly hope, and I think reasonably expect, that a climate of respect for worldview identities, grows into a culture of appreciative knowledge about and more complex understandings of worldview identities. Among the many reputable sources to learn about diverse religious and worldview identities, I would commend two great resources: Harvard’s Pluralism Project, and Part 5 of “Educating About Religious Diversity and Interfaith Engagement,” which explores the question, What should I know to support my Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Secular/Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu students on campus? and is written by experienced campus educators (Goodman, Giess, & Patel, 2017).

Recognizing an aspect of identity that may otherwise not be overtly welcome in public conversation can be quite generative. At the University of Northern Colorado, two passionate educators (within the Cultural Center and Student Life) started their interfaith efforts by having initial conversations with colleagues to discuss their interest. People were unaccustomed to, and apprehensive of the invitation to intentionally engage worldview identity in their programing. Yet, because of a deep personal conviction that students’ (and educators’) worldview identities should be respected and engaged, “there has been an overwhelming outpour of support from the campus community” (Hartman-Pickerill, 2020). Importantly the leaders at UNC anchored this work in their core institutional identity. Many campuses hold respect as a core value, and cultivating civically engaged global leaders as a core purpose.

Respect is the foundation to a healthy relationship. It does not require agreement, just the opposite, it requires a commitment to honoring another person’s core value despite deep disagreements. Respect for religious and non-religious identities isn’t where interfaith work should end, but it is a fine place to begin.


Egemenoglu, E. (2020, March). First Amendment. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/first_amendment

Interfaith Youth Core. (2020). Religious Accommodations and Policies on Campus. https://ifyc.org/resources/religious-accommodations-and-policies

Goodman, K. M., Giess, M., & Patel, E. (2017). Educating about religious diversity and interfaith engagement: A handbook for student affairs. STYLUS Publishing.

Hartman-Pickerill, B. (2020). Public higher education and the pursuit of civic religious pluralism: A report on promising practices. https://www.ifyc.org/resources/public-higher-education-and-pursuit-civic-religious-pluralism-report-promising-practices

Rockenbach, A. N., Hudson, T.D., Mayhew, M.J., Correia-Karker, B.P., Morin, S., & Associates (2019). Friendships matter: The role of peer relationships in interfaith learning and development. Interfaith Youth Core.