USC prides itself on the religious diversity of its campus. According to the website of the USC Interfaith Council, the school hosts more religious student groups than any other American university. In the wake of the death of former USC President Steven Sample in March, who was a strong advocate for religious involvement on campus, students should consider how they can serve as a symbol of religious tolerance for students at other American universities. Now more than ever, religious minorities on college campuses are in critical need of protection from discrimination.
Sample was a devout Episcopalian who believed that students should grow both spiritually and academically during their time at college. When he established USC’s Office of Religious Life in 1996, he appointed Rabbi Susan Laemmle as its dean, making her the first non-Christian to serve as the head of religion at a large American university. Varun Soni, the current dean of religious life and a self-described “non-ordained Hindu attorney,” succeeded her as the second.
In an interview, Soni shared his thoughts on the role of religion at a secular university like USC.
“The way we interpret secularism is very much the way the United States interprets it,” Soni said. “Secularism means all religions in the public sphere.”
In other words, unless there is a compelling governmental interest at stake, the government cannot restrict Americans from practicing their religion in public or private. This is called positive secularism. It stands in contrast to the more limited secularism established in countries like France, where burqas and other face coverings have been banned in public spaces because the law protecting religious liberty only applies to private worship.
But because of the extent to which Christianity is ingrained into American society, positive secularism means that members of minority religions have to ask for accommodations more often than others. For example, all students have Christmas off. But on April 29, Jewish students who wished to observe the Jewish practice of abstaining from work on the seventh day of Passover had to make special arrangements with their teachers to make up classwork. USC trains its instructors for this sort of situation, but at other schools, students requesting religious accommodations are sometimes dismissed.
On May 10, The Citadel, a U.S. military academy, prohibited an admitted Muslim student from wearing a hijab with her cadet uniform. The decision ended a campus-wide debate spurred in part when a current Citadel cadet made a Facebook post about the request in April.
“It’s unfair to the school having to change rules and adjust to the individual, when the individual could’ve gone to USC without incident,” he wrote.
The disgruntled cadet’s notion that it is “unfair” for The Citadel to accommodate a student’s faith betrays an incorrect understanding of American secularity. The Citadel already accommodates Christian students by providing three Christian chaplain staff and more than a dozen Christian ministries on campus. The Citadel is overdue on its responsibility to ensure that Muslim students can practice their faith at college and should reverse its decision. As it stands, The Citadel is sending Islamic extremists exactly the message they want to hear — that the United States is at war with Islam.
Lieutenant General John Rosa, The Citadel’s president, claimed in a press release that standardizing cadet appearance was part of the “relinquishing of self” required of military trainees. In stating so, he admits that the school’s reason for forbidding the hijab was based on a superficial desire for uniformity, rather than any serious safety concern. The fact is that a uniform is more than sufficient for its namesake purpose. Cadets will never be completely indistinguishable, and wearing a hijab is no less obtrusively individual than having a religious tattoo, allowed in all branches of the military, or a different skin color. It is time for The Citadel to recognize that military uniformity is still subject to the First Amendment protection of religious liberty.
The Citadel case shows that positive secularism remains an ideal and has not yet been translated into practice at every institution. Though USC has strong protections for religious minorities in place, an Annenberg Media Q & A with Muslim students found that they are still subject to stereotyping and derisive comments.
One interviewee reported, “I had a student look at me with my hijab — and I was carrying packages — and he says ‘Boom, terrorist!’”
Clearly, students still have some work to do in ensuring that religious minorities feel comfortable displaying their faith.
An important way of protecting diversity on a deeper level than policy is by promoting interfaith dialogue and collaboration. Soni explains that the best way to counteract religious prejudice is to discuss religion in settings that are non-academic.
“If you take a class on Islam, it’s less likely that you’ll be Islamophobic. But even more valuable than knowing about a different tradition is knowing someone of a different tradition,” Soni said.
Students forge interfaith friendships when they forego the critical distancing practiced in the classroom and talk personally about their own faith.
The Ansar Service Partnership, a Muslim student organization, works to make that happen. Each month, the group partners with a student organization representing a different faith and they volunteer together in the USC area. Then, the students debrief and share scripture passages from their own traditions about the importance of community service. Deservedly, they won this year’s Best Religious Organization Award at the Tommy’s Awards Night in April. Ansar’s work shows that basic human values like compassion and kindness are common to all religions.
Atheists, agnostics and humanists share these values, and they should also be brought into the spiritual fold. The millennial generation is the standard-bearer of “spiritual but not religious,” and students who do not believe in a higher power and do not attend organized worship can be as devout as their religious counterparts in practicing empathy and mindfulness.
According to Soni, USC is one of several American universities to employ a secular chaplain. His name is Bart Campolo, and he advises the Secular Student Fellowship.
Soni notes that the USC Office of Religious Life is “oriented around meaning, purpose, authenticity, significance and identity,” and strives to “be a resource for everyone, regardless of your religious or spiritual background.” The Secular Student Fellowship, for its part, hosts conversations about political issues like racism and sexual assault and invites students to take a rationalist approach to identifying and combating injustice.
In March 2015, the USC Interfaith Council asked students on Trousdale what motivates them. One student wrote, “I believe that there is goodness in all people and beauty in every tradition.” That message is important. Although USC is quite religiously diverse, Christianity holds a great deal of weight on campus. Of the 80 student religious organizations listed on the website of the Office of Religious Life, 60 are Christian. Many of the other faiths are represented by only one or two student organizations, which may not reflect the full spectrum of beliefs within each religious tradition.
USC’s religious minorities need to know that they are welcome. Soni emphasizes that the project of creating an inclusive religious climate on campus cannot be reduced to simply having diverse student groups. Rather, he wants USC as a whole to be a great place to be a religious student.
“If we develop that kind of reputation, I think the diversity part will take care of itself,” Soni said.
A good way to start is by simply talking about religion because prejudice feeds on silence.