University policies vs. student religious practice: Washington state finds a solution

Written by William C. Duncan

January 21, 2021

When Chike Uzuegbunam was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, he wanted to share his Christian faith with other students. So, in 2016, he handed out religious tracts and spoke with other students until he was stopped by college officials. They told him that he could only share in a designated speech zone. He explains: “It was difficult to find those minuscule speech zones: they only made up 0.0015% of the campus and were only open for about 10% of the school week.” He also had to reserve a spot and get approval of his materials from the administration.

Undaunted, Uzuegbunam applied for permission and went to the free speech zone only to be stopped by campus police because someone had complained about his activities.

Tensions like this one between student religious practice and university policies are not uncommon.

Religious student groups

In 2019, a federal judge in Iowa ruled that school officials at the University of Iowa had violated the constitutional rights of two student groups with religious missions, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Business Leaders in Christ. The university had said the groups discriminated in their requirement that leaders support the beliefs of the groups and revoked their “their privileges as registered student organizations, thus cutting off access to university funding, office space and other privileges.”

The court determined the university had selectively enforced its discrimination policy, singling out the religious groups for different treatment than campus fraternities and sororities.

Religious holidays

Recently, the Washington legislature recognized the need to lessen a potential conflict for university students. Students, particularly those who are part of minority religious groups, may have religious obligations like holy days that are not familiar to professors and administrators. This can create a challenge for such students, who may need accommodations for religious duties so they do not get behind in classwork or miss exams.

So, the state law requires the schools to “reasonably accommodate students who, due to the observance of religious holidays, expect to be absent or endure a significant hardship during certain days of the course or program.” This would allow, for instance, Muslim students to take exams in the evening during Ramadan when they are fasting during the day.

Consequences for violations

Returning to the Georgia case, Uzuegbunam challenged the university policy only to be stymied because the university had changed its policy to allow greater freedom to future students and because he had graduated so he could not longer sue to vindicate his own rights. He still argued that the school should be accountable for depriving him of his rights and is now seeking a nominal remedy from the college in order to do so.

His case is now at the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral argument on Jan. 12. The justices have to balance the argument that there needs to be some, even slight, consequence for depriving the student of his rights, with the reality that the Constitution does not allow the Supreme Court to give hypothetical opinions.

A path forward

This case illustrates not only the potential for unnecessary friction between religious practice and campus policies, but also the need for proactive solutions that prevent the conflicts from arising, since students may not realistically be able to vindicate their rights in a court battle that could outlast their time in school, making their claims moot.

That is why the Washington model is important. It illustrates that by recognizing potential conflicts and enacting appropriate accommodations, schools can do their work without unnecessarily infringing the religious exercise of students. It is a model other states, including Utah, should follow.

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