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The State of Student Religious Accommodations in Higher Education

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education
November 8, 2023 Gordon Maples

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 4, November 2023

Critical Religious Studies in Higher Education: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

A few years ago, I worked with Jenny Small—the contributing editor and sometimes-author of this column—on an analysis of higher education religious accommodation policies that was ultimately published here at the Journal of College and Character (Maples et al., 2021).

My dissertation - which I defended in March - expanded on that work, building on some gaps of the previous study with a larger sample and a more robust scorecard for determining the quality of policies. Unfortunately, I found some alarming things, which were ultimately covered in features in Inside Higher Ed and The Christian Post. For instance, I found that a majority of higher education institutions—over 54% of my sample—did not have explicit religious accommodation policies for their students (Maples, 2023). Less than a quarter of the policies (21.8%) that did exist applied to potential student needs outside of the classroom setting, such as dietary or prayer space accommodations. Overall, the policies that were present were limited in scope and power, and potentially created further equity concerns due to their insufficiencies.

At the same time, we’ve also recently seen some progress on the legal front relating to student religious accommodations, with the states of Ohio and Maryland both passing new legislation this year mandating minimum accommodations for students at their public higher education institutions. This follows similar passages in Washington state in 2019 and Utah in 2021. Maryland’s policy includes the wise decision to mandate that institutions “include a grievance procedure to report noncompliance with the policy,” and Utah’s policy similarly requires institutions to “establish a process by which a student may submit a grievance.” The lack of appeals or grievance procedures was a major shortcoming I found in many religious accommodation policies: only 49% of the policies I analyzed in my dissertation study included an appeals process at all. Ohio’s new policy has made strides in a different area of concern, as it includes the stipulation that “instructor(s) shall accept without question the sincerity of a student's religious or spiritual belief system.” The desire to verify the ‘sincerity’ of religious beliefs has proven to be an equity issue with some standing policies, which have required signatures from religious leaders or other invasive or unrealistic verification procedures in order for a student accommodation to be made, posing a significant barrier for students from marginalized and/or stigmatized religious and spiritual backgrounds (Maples et al., 2021; Maples, 2023). Washington’s policy is exceptional as well for the fact that it is binding for all “postsecondary educational institutions” in the state—including private colleges and universities. My dissertation study found that private colleges are less likely— regardless of their denominational affiliation or lack thereof—to provide a religious accommodation policy for their students, so Washington’s decision is an important one for improving the landscape (Maples, 2023).

However, these policies are baselines, and by no means universally robust. With the exception of Washington, the other recent state policies all only have bearing on public colleges. None of the policies apply to student religious needs outside of the classroom setting, instead choosing to focus on classroom absences and/or assignment extensions. There is certainly more ground to cover.

I’m personally curious and more than a bit concerned about what may be in store in our future, though. Attacks on both DEI programs and higher education in general are rampant at the state level: The area of religion has been able to evade a lot of that flak so far, but religious accommodations could certainly become a conservative pundit talking point any day now. I also wonder if there is a potential for these policies—particularly when hastily composed—to open unanticipated doors. Conservative Christians could ask for exemptions for class assignments relating to LGBTQ material, perhaps? A student could ask to be exempt from a group project that requires them to work with a nonbinary classmate? It is hard to speculate how broadly a policy could be applied.

Currently, there’s certainly a need to assess the new laws being passed and re-analyze the ones in states like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts that have been on the books for decades. Additionally, the sample for my dissertation wasn’t inclusive of community colleges, which I noted as a concern area from my 2021 piece; anecdotally, I know it was far harder to locate policies at 2-year institutions compared to their 4-year counterparts. I suspect the landscape for religious accommodations at community colleges could be even more dire. There is certainly more research to be done in the area of higher education’s religious accommodation policies, and it poses a largely unexamined frontier of equity concerns for the field.

It is a curious time to be following this issue of religious accommodations at colleges: There are many reasons to be concerned, but also some signs that justify an optimistic outlook, however cautiously. For the time being, I’m keeping my eyes peeled and my nose to the research grindstone.

References

Kamman, S. (2023, July 20). Religious accommodation policies on college campuses lacking: Report. The Christian Post. https://www.christianpost.com/news/mostcolleges-failing-to-accommodate-religious-students-report.htm

Maples, G. (2023). Student religious accommodation policies and non-Christian college student perceptions of institutional support: A mixed methods dissertation [Doctoral dissertation, North Carolina State University]. https://repository.lib.ncsu.edu/handle/1840.20/40915

Maples, G., Rediger, L., & Small, J. (2021). Privilege as policy? An analysis of student religious accommodation policies in higher education. Journal of College and Character, 22(4), 272-290. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2021.1977151

Ohio public policy on student religious accommodations. Ohio Administrative Code Rule 3341-3-82 (2023). https://codes.ohio.gov/ohio-administrative-code/rule-3341-3-82#:~:text=A%20student%20may%20be%20absent,other%20religious%20or%20spiritual%20organization.

Reasonable accommodation for religious holidays. RCW 28B.137.010 (2019). https://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=28B.137.010

Student religious accommodations. Utah Code § 53B-27-405 (2021). https://le.utah.gov/xcode/Title53B/Chapter27/53B-27-S405.html

Weissman, S. (2023, July 17). Religious accommodation policies lacking. Inside Higher

Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/diversity/religion/2023/07/17/lackreligious-accommodation-policies-campuses

Written policy providing reasonable academic accommodations. Md. Code, Educ. § 15-137 (2023). https://casetext.com/statute/code-of-maryland/article-education/division-iii-higher-education/title-15-public-institutions-of-higher-education/subtitle-1-general-provisions/section-15-137-written-policy-providing-reasonable-academic-accommodations#:~:text=(b)%20The%20policy%20shall%3A,for%20missing%20an%20examination%20or