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Should College Students Get a Break for Religious Holidays? One State Says Yes.

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Mennah El-Gammal struggled to juggle finals with her Muslim faith her last three years as a student at the University of Washington in Seattle. She was fasting nearly 18 hours a day during finals week because it coincided with Ramadan, Islam’s holy month.

Taking her exams at slightly different times would have helped, but fear sealed her silence. A few weeks after the 2016 presidential election, a Muslim female student wearing hijab was injured on campus when a stranger hit her in the face with a bottle. El-Gammal, who wears a hijab as well, was afraid of drawing extra attention—not so much from professors, but from other students who would view her as seeking special treatment and resent her and other Muslims as a result.

“You don’t really ask for accommodations. The political climate we’re in and the culture we’re in create a silent pressure on practicing students to not present a burden and further alienate themselves by asking for religious accommodations,” El-Gammal says. She graduated from the University of Washington in June after leading the college’s Middle Eastern Student Commission, a part of student government.

El-Gammal soon moved from fear to advocacy for religious accommodations on college campuses. A fellow student, who had been raised Christian and now affiliated with no faith, persuaded her to work with him on the issue because he had seen how challenging it was for fasting Muslim students during finals. So El-Gammal, other students, and Muslim and Jewish organizations successfully lobbied for the passage of a law that requires all private and public colleges in the state of Washington to “reasonably accommodate” students for religious reasons, including observance of a holiday. The measure, approved by wide margins, went into effect in late July in time for start of the 2019-20 school year. It expanded a 2014 law that allowed students at public K-12 schools and colleges to miss two extra days of school for holidays and permitted public employees two extra unpaid holidays each year. The 2019 version, specifically pitched as a way to provide more religious accommodations for college students, appears to be the only law of its kind in the nation, and it affects the state’s six public four-year universities, 34 public community colleges and technical schools, as well as hundreds of private postsecondary institutions. Now, El-Gammal and others hope to get similar religious accommodation laws aimed at colleges passed in seven states, all likely to be swing states during the 2020 presidential election.

The goal is to create a federal movement on religious equity. J. Cody Nielsen, executive director of Convergence, an organization that grew out of his doctoral research for Iowa State University, is leading the national push for more religious accommodation laws, beginning with 2020 legislative sessions. He has been studying how American and Canadian universities are addressing the concerns of religious, secular, and spiritual students on campus.

Nielsen contends that leaders in higher education rarely have discussions about religious equity. “Most administrators and professionals think they’re not supposed to talk about it, and in so doing, we’ve upheld Christian homogeneity on campus in a very dangerous way,” he says. He and others, though, are quick to point out that Christians can benefit from religious accommodations, too. Orthodox Christians, for example, celebrate Christmas in early January, and often have to take a day off from class to celebrate with family or go to church services.

Washington appears to be the first state to pass a law requiring colleges to make those accommodations, says Charles C. Haynes, a First Amendment scholar and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, D.C.

“We’re not going to force students to choose between following their God and having their education. That’s terrific,” Haynes says. “We have a choice before us as a country at this point. We could go forward with government policies and educational practices that recognize our religious diversity, that recognize we need to accommodate people, or we can simply run roughshod over people’s religious practices and say, ‘This is how we do things.’ ”  Read the Whole Article

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