My campus’s religious observance policy is pretty good, although vague around the edges. First, we are urged to avoid scheduling mandatory exercises on days when “significant numbers of student would be impacted.” In practice, this means try to avoid Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana; the updated version of the policy also mentions Eid al-Adha although, candidly even avoidance of Jewish holidays for exams is hit or miss and there is very little public attention to Eid on this campus.
Second, and this is the part I want to both praise and comment on, we are to provide a non-punitive alternative for any student who says they have a religious conflict with a particular date. There are reasonable constraints on this: the student has to tell the instructor the relevant date(s) within the first three weeks of class (not the night before an exam), and there can be “reasonable limits” on the total number of days requested. The policy explicitly says that “students’ sincerely held religious beliefs shall be reasonably accommodated with respect to scheduling all examinations and other academic requirements” and that “A student’s claim of religious conflict, which may include travel time, should be accepted at face value” because “there is no practical, dignified, and legal means to assess the validity of individual claims.” Pretty good.
So where are the problems? One I’ve recognized for quite a while is the matter of the Lunar New Year. For Chinese and many other Asian ethnic groups, the Lunar New Year is the equivalent of Christmas for Christians. It is the major holiday period of the year. Everything shuts down, people go home to visit relatives. It is a time for feasting and, in many families, a time for spiritual reflection and rituals honoring ancestors. If a Chinese student says that their religion is being Chinese and they want to miss class for a Lunar New Year celebration, the policy clearly requires that they be accommodated, but very few Chinese students make this request. (When I remember, I explicitly tell my classes that I will treat the Lunar New Year the same way I treat Passover or Yom Kippur, as an excused absence.) In fact, sociologically, religion and culture are inextricably intertwined, but much of the US understanding is too narrowly linked to First Amendment concepts of freedom of religion and too little is linked to what it means to accommodate cultural minorities. I’ve suggested to students this term that someone start a social movement to get explicit recognition for the Lunar New Year as a religious holiday.
Second, and a Hmong student just brought this to my attention, there are religious observances that are not necessarily tied to dates that can be known in advance. For example, Hmong healing rituals are scheduled when someone needs it, not on specific dates. The student asked whether that could get religious accommodation. Such religious rituals are akin to close family rituals like weddings and funerals for which we lack clear standards for judging whether a student should have a right to accommodation. We all know about the “grandparent death syndrome” associated with exams, but too much cynicism leads us to be heartless or culturally insensitive to the genuinely important events in student’s lives.
Genuinely accommodating the real needs of our students involves both humanity and a sociological reflection upon the meanings of religion and culture and social obligations.