Portland State adopted a new policy for religious accommodations on Feb. 8, geared toward making students and staff feel more at home on campus in regard to their religious beliefs.
The policy details the ways that PSU students, faculty and staff are protected from religious discrimination. The policy defines religion broadly, stating, “It includes traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and other wisdom traditions. It also includes religious/spiritual beliefs that are new, uncommon, or unaffiliated with a traditional sect or community, or only held by a small number of people.”
Under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, a practice is religious if the employee requesting the accommodation so indicates.
Associate Vice President of Global Diversity & Inclusion Julie Caron explained how implementation of the policy has been in progress for over a year and that it has now replaced PSU’s prior religious accommodations, which she described as minimal. Caron also noted the new policy is pertinent to the nation’s current political climate.
Caron recently sent an email to PSU students, faculty, and staff regarding the new policy. “The PSU community is enriched by individuals of many faiths and sincerely held beliefs that have various observances and practices,” Caron explained. “While PSU is not endorsing any specific religion, faculty, staff and students are expected to create and to maintain a culture that strives toward deepening respect for and understanding of religious and spiritual differences within our community. In affirming this diversity, it is PSU’s policy and practice to provide reasonable religious accommodations for students and employees, faculty and staff.”
The email specifically notes that accommodations will always be upheld absent of one that would cause “undue hardship,” which is defined within the policy as a “significant or substantial burden taking into account in all relevant circumstances,” something that should be kept in mind.
While going into great detail about the accommodations that it provides, the policy makes it clear that responsibility falls on the student, faculty, or staff member to inform the appropriate individuals in order to facilitate the proper implementation of their accommodations. For students, this means going over the syllabi for their classes in the beginning of the term so their professors can be notified of any religious-related absence early. Staff and faculty are also encouraged by the policy to inform their manager or supervisor of their own needs regarding religious practices.
Further strengthening the availability of accommodations, the policy makes it clear that any staff or faculty member having a problem in obtaining accommodations should speak to PSU Human Resources, and that a student experiencing a similar issue should contact the Office of the Dean of Student Life.
Students, staff, and faculty must still fulfill their obligations regardless of accommodations, and requires advanced notice for missed classes based on religious reasons, and that missed work must be made up in a reasonable amount of time. The policy makes it clear that accommodations are not exemptions.
In response to PSU’s new religious accommodations, PSU philosophy major Reece Betcher remains skeptical, stating, “This policy may look tolerant on the surface, but in practice I suspect outspoken students will use the policy [to] prioritize their faiths over others.”
Caron, however, believes that the long-term benefits of the policy will generate a more inclusive environment at PSU, where “people understand each other’s differences and provide an educational and employment culture that allows everyone to achieve their goals with the right resources.”
“By students having the ability to obtain the assistance of the Office of the Dean of Student Life and employees Human Resources,” Caron said, “the religious accommodation policy will provide new mechanisms to allow for a more consistent application of religious accommodations.”
PSU’s adaptation of this new religious accommodations policy is a move toward being more inclusive. As more and more students and employees become aware of this policy, its efficacy or lack thereof will become apparent.
Students or staff who are interested in receiving information for their own accommodations can be helped at the Office of the Dean of Student Life.