Opinion: Religious minorities have the right to both their holidays and their GPAs

Even after a lengthy battle with administration, non-Christian students are still treated as an afterthought

Typically, when we think of cultural issues on Vanderbilt’s campus, we are quick to recognize the self-segregation of various racial and ethnic groups and international students’ difficulty integrating into the larger community. Rarely do students think of religious diversity on campus and the difficulty many having balancing their educational and religious obligations as a major issue.

Honestly, I seldom thought of the last issue myself. As a Jewish American woman, the namesake of two Holocaust survivors, from Florida’s largest Jewish community, I didn’t have to learn how to balance my faith and my education. Being surrounded by so many people who followed the same faith, I never felt like I was in the minority. When I was growing up, classes were cancelled for all major Jewish holidays (the High Holidays) and any requests for work extensions due to a religious conflict were immediately granted. It wasn’t until I came to Vanderbilt that I recognized the full extent to which religious minorities have to stand up for their beliefs and actually prove to people that a religion is not a choice, and the choice between class and religion is not possible to make.

I had never had professors say that I couldn’t practice my religion.

Fortunately, when students need to be excused for religious purposes, some professors grant these accommodations because they recognize students as whole people as opposed to study-machines. However, others may deem religious holidays as just another absence, sometimes even deeming them unexcused. This forces students to decide between part of their identity and their GPA. For those that think that these professors don’t exist, I’m going to tell a story that demonstrates the underlying discrimination towards religious minorities on Vanderbilt’s campus:

I am proud to be a VUceptor. I get to help all of my 18 first-year students along the path that is the “first semester of first year” and aid them in any way that I can. When the High Holidays were coming up, one of my students asked to discuss the excusable absence policy with me because my student’s professors weren’t allowing them to take the days off. On top of this, because my students’ professors failed to grant him the excused absences, my student had to cancel flights home and was forced to spend these special holidays without family for the first time. I was furious and I told my student that I would look into it because I had never had professors say that I couldn’t practice my religion.

Because the Western education system is scheduled around the Christian faith calendar, only minority religious holidays become “inconvenient” for faculty. The only religious holidays that would need excuses are those of non-Christian religions. Students don’t need academic excuses for Christian holidays, like Christmas and Easter, because they are already accounted for by the timing of breaks. Therefore, not allowing academic excuses for religious holidays is inherently discriminatory towards non-Christian students.

I immediately set up a meeting with Rev. Mark Forrester, the Director of the Office of Religious Life at the time. I explained the situation to him and requested that he intervene with the student’s professors and explain the importance of religious observance. However, instead of identifying and righting an act of religious discrimination, Dr. Forrester informed me that allowing an excusable absence for a religious holiday is up to the discretion of the individual professor. Because Vanderbilt is a secular university, it has no explicit provision that allows for students to freely practice their religious holidays as a guaranteed excused absence. The closest the university comes to this is on page 67 of the Undergraduate Catalog for the College of Arts and Science, where it outlines examples of excusable activities. First, it lists university sponsored events, then mentions religious holidays that are “officially designated” to be considered for an excuse. Unfortunately, because each case is up to the discretion of the individual professor, many students aren’t granted excused absences for their religious holidays. This forces them to make the choice between religion and class attendance.

From this meeting, I met with an Associate Dean of Arts and Science, trying to go further up the administrative chain in order to make effective change. I now not only wanted to ensure that my student would be allowed to freely practice religion, but change the campus guidelines for all students who practice minority religions. Approximately twenty percent of Vanderbilt students practice a non-Christian religion, if they practice at all. Additionally, 14 percent of students are Jewish, meaning that those who practice constantly need to decide between their faith and their classes, especially at the beginning of the fall semester when the High Holidays come around. The Dean that I met with agreed that as the campus desires to be more diverse, certain rules need to become more accomodating. From our meeting, he suggested I speak to a Vice Chancellor, whose name and exact title will remain anonymous due to the nature of our conversation.

This Vice Chancellor told me that mature students know how to make the choice between education and religion, and which one is the correct one. The Vice Chancellor also compared being religious to having even having an athletic or musical obligation. The constant theme was that religion is a choice after all, and students practicing non-Christian religions are the only ones that must make a choice between their identity and their education. This rhetoric only halted after I detailed my family’s history in the Holocaust. I tried to explain that if I had a choice in being Jewish, more than three-quarters of my dad’s family would have lived past being children in Eastern Europe.

With this train of thought perpetually derailed, the next argument the Vice Chancellor took on was that of academic freedom of the professors, specifically professors’ ability to create their own attendance policy. Because some discussion-based classes can only operate with full student participation, they should have the right, in a secular university, to have a strict attendance policy irrespective of religious holidays. My response to this remark was that unchecked sovereignty in the classroom allowed for professors to go against the overarching values of the university in order to create a classroom experience of their liking. For example, not too long ago, it was the argument of “academic freedom” that allowed professors to keep African-Americans and women out of their classrooms.

This campus needs to talk about the recent rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and how to make all of its students feel welcome

Eventually, the Title IX Office took on the complaint and agreed that there is the potential for discrimination towards religious minority students: only non-Christian students need to ask for academic excuses and professors were allowed to deny them. Looking to change this situation, they developed a religious obligations form that students can submit to the Title IX Office at the beginning of the semester. Once professors receive notice of the form’s submission, they must grant the student their religious accommodations.

This campus needs to talk about the recent rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and how to make all of its students feel welcome during this toxic time. Preferential treatment towards dominant religions and ignorance towards religion’s importance in one’s identity needs to be discussed so that each student feels accepted on this campus. Even at the beautiful memorial service dedicated to the 11 souls lost at the Pittsburgh shooting, the Vice Provost talked more about all religions coming together to grieve than how particularly devastating it is for the Jewish student population. We must recognize that religious minorities exist on this campus. We must recognize the hatred that is thrown at these students and the discrimination, both subtle and direct, that they endure. We must recognize how devalued we feel when we are forced to choose between our identity and our GPA.

Sydney Juda is a sophomore in the School of Engineering. She can be reached at sydney.r.juda@vanderbilt.edu.

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