(AP/Mark Lennihan)

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.’ ”

There is no national database of colleges’ policies, but the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core reports that of 190 public and private colleges the organization surveyed in 2017, about half had a religious holiday course absence policy for students. Mary Ellen Giess, the organization’s senior director of co-curricular partnerships, says the survey can’t give a sense of what’s happening nationally because it’s skewed toward colleges already inclined to work on interfaith issues.

In the 1970s, as scholars were studying how America had become increasingly secular, academia became more prone to take a hands-off approach to religion.  Colleges, save the private religious ones, would pride themselves on having a secular identity, even if their roots were from religious organizations.

“They wanted to hold religion at arm’s length,” Giess says, adding that many in academia believed that “the classroom and academy is not a place to discuss your personal beliefs, and you ought to bracket what you are.”

Now, several colleges, private and public, are working to make it natural for a religiously-observant student to ask for assistance, following the self-advocacy model set by students with disabilities. The impetus is twofold: Colleges are responding to a growing number of Muslim students on campus and also to higher education’s increased attention to diversity of all kinds. Many colleges for years have offered kosher and halal food in dining halls.

While still small, the population of Muslim students on campus has more than tripled, from 0.3% to roughly 2% over the last three decades, according to national surveys of college freshmen conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. Meanwhile, Ramadan, which is linked to the lunar calendar, in recent years began falling near or during final exam weeks for the first time in decades, presenting an added challenge for observant students who fast from dawn to dusk for the entire month. It will remain during the academic year for the next 30 years.

“This law in Washington is a great step forward. On the other hand, accommodating religion in that way is the bottom line. That should be, from our perspective, a no-brainer,” religion scholar Douglas “Jake” Jacobsen says. He and his wife and fellow scholar, Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, co-authored No Longer Invisible, a book about the history of religion in higher education. “The issue is, how do you positively bring these kinds of deeper concerns into an educational program so people learn how to talk to each other about the deepest convictions that shape their lives?”

Providing an accommodation doesn’t necessarily educate college students or professors about world religions or improve religious literacy, a dire need both in K-12 and higher education, the Jacobsens argue.

Still, religious accommodation policies can at least raise awareness of religious minorities and make it clear that students can request an accommodation. Ideally, the path for students will get easier; today, many religiously-observant students, regardless of faith, will not ask for an accommodation because they don’t know how a professor will react or if it’s even okay to ask, says Maxima Patashnik, director of government and community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, which supported the new Washington law.

Colleges should be proactive rather than wait for state laws to push the issue, says Celene Ibrahim, who served for five years as the Tufts University Muslim chaplain. Tufts approved a new religious accommodations policy in 2018, spurred by requests from students of various faiths.

“It’s part of a larger effort to ensure that religious minorities are seen and are visible in appropriate ways and not disadvantaged,” Ibrahim says.

Having a seamless transition from policies and laws to accommodation may not be easy. Providing religious accommodations at colleges fits into the broader, prickly discussion nationally about religious liberty, which has led to clashes like the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, where the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld a Colorado baker’s right to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. While the state of Washington law passed easily, some organizations, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, and American Atheists, based in Cranford, New Jersey, expressed concerns that the original bill was too broad. The first version said professors had to accommodate any student’s sincerely-held belief or practice and did not require advance notice. Both organizations, citing the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, cautioned that students could take their requests too far and use their religion as a way to refuse to work with or discriminate against other groups.

The final version reduced their concerns but doesn’t resolve all possible issues, including how professors are supposed to decide what constitutes a religion. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says, “If the Satanic Temple decides they have a main holiday during the school year, what then? There are an awful lot of religions out there.”

Others question what would happen if a professor offers a late evening exam time to accommodate Muslim students who fast during the day, and an atheist student wants to take the evening exam as well. Facing exactly this situation in 2017, a pair of University of Washington at Bothell professors responded by making a late exam available to all.

“In theory, it’s a very positive thing, but I could see this can of worms,” Suhag Shukla, executive director and co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, says. “I don’t think we’ve figured it out as a nation as to how to handle this. It may be complicated to carry it out.”

Shukla also notes that many Hindu practices and holidays are unfamiliar to the general public, something affirmed in a recent Pew Research Center survey on Americans and religious knowledge. Just 15 percent of Americans, for example, can identify the Vedas as a Hindu text.

“Given the level of ignorance about world religions and religious literacy generally, I just wouldn’t want to see administrators having to be put in a position where they’re going to be judging whether something is legitimate or not,” Shukla says. “What is that standard going to be?”

The new Washington law gives students and colleges shared responsibilities. Students must ask for religious accommodations within two weeks of the start of the semester and include the dates they need accommodations. Colleges must let students know about the policy by publishing it on the college website and including the policy, or a link to it, in course or program syllabi. Students and professors will have to work together to decide what constitutes a reasonable accommodation.

Joseph Janes, an associate professor and chair-elect of the University of Washington’s Faculty Senate, says he thinks the law will be easy enough to navigate. Like many professors,  he has informally handled and approved requests from students for religious accommodations in the past. Cases could arise where a faculty has never heard of a holiday, he says.

“I hope they will be resolved in good faith, open mindedness, and kindness, and with more opportunity for people to have understanding of others’ religious faith and traditions,” Janes says.

He says he hopes the new law persuades more students to seek accommodations if they need them. So does El-Gammal, the former student leader at the University of Washington, who believes the existence of the new law should reduce some students’ reluctance to speak up.

Universities concerned about how to make religious accommodations work can look to other schools for examples, says Giess of the Interfaith Youth Core. “Lots of institutions take this as a beautiful opportunity to do some good religious literacy,” she says. “Many institutions provide a religious holiday calendar with links to traditions.”

Illinois Wesleyan University, a private college in Bloomington, Illinois, has a new statement on religious accommodations in its handbooks this school year. The Rev. Elyse Nelson Winger, the college’s chaplain and associate dean of students, says that though affiliated with the United Methodist Church, the university also has Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu students, as well as a large number of students who identify as secular. Previously, the academic calendar did not recognize Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and major events and meetings were scheduled on those Jewish holy days. Its new statement encourages stakeholders, including professors and students, to refrain from scheduling campus events, special experiences, or classes on major religious holidays.

“Part of it comes to an understanding that we live by an academic calendar, but the academic calendar privileges Christian patterns of worship and holidays. We don’t have classes on Sundays. Winter break includes Christmas,” Winger says. “It’s often an invisible privilege we don’t even think about.”

Nielsen, the leader of Convergence, has recruited about 30 people across seven other states to take up the cause of religious accommodations on college campuses. His hope is that his group will find a lawmaker in each state willing to propose a bill in 2020 legislative sessions that could give religious minorities some of the privilege that Christians have—the right to observe a holiday without having to sacrifice education.


Linda K. Wertheimer, a veteran journalist from the Boston area, is the author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in An Age of Intolerance (Beacon Press). Find her on Twitter @lindakwert.