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Universities not immune to religious controversy

POSTED: August 20, 2014 12:17 a.m.

Interview with Will Schofield

The issue of religion in schools doesn’t end with the 12th grade. Public universities also have to tread carefully when it comes to expressions of faith.

While a letter from the American Humanist Association has sparked a recent controversy over prayer at Chestatee High School, the University of North Georgia has been dealing with some religious expression issues of its own.

Administrators recently met with Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, to discuss the use of prayer at university Corps of Cadets meetings.

Weinstein said he sent a letter to the university after receiving a complaint from students that the corps chaplain, who is a student, gave Christian prayers at corps meetings.

In the letter, Weinstein addressed the prayers and also said the group’s chaplain corps was not inclusive of faiths other than Christianity.

Weinstein asked for a face-to-face meeting in the letter, and the university responded by inviting Weinstein to the school to talk with administrators and students.

“We actually invited (Weinstein) to come to campus in the spirit of having open dialogue about this concern, and we appreciate the information that he presented,” said Kate Maine, director of university relations at UNG. “We will take it into consideration.”

Weinstein said he is normally met with hostility over issues of religious expression because his group is, in his own words, “militant,” and he was pleasantly surprised to be invited to the school.

“We got the chance to explain who we are and what we are doing,” he said. “They weren’t offended that we were there. They were open to listen. ... On a scale of one to 10 in regard to productivity and positivity, I give it a 16.”

K-12 schools and colleges have different challenges when it comes to religious expression, but the balancing principle is the same: Students should feel free to express their faith or lack thereof, and, Maine said, they shouldn’t feel coerced into participating in another person’s religion.

“We certainly base our policies on legal decisions and use those as guidance,” Maine said. “The challenge is for us to provide the appropriate balance. ... It really varies tremendously based on the setting and the circumstance. What we want to make sure of is that prayer is not presented in a coercive way.”

Maine said that, while faculty and staff do not lead prayers at UNG, students sometimes give invocations at events. She said the university counsels students on how to make those prayers inclusive.

“We do not censor student speech,” Maine said, “but the guidance we provide is that if they choose a religious message, they open it with an invitation.”

For example, she said, students might begin an invocation with “I invite you to pray with me if you choose.”

Rachel Glazer, a junior at UNG, said it was an invocation at a convocation that inspired her to create the a student organization called Interfaith Alliance, of which she is now president.

Glazer, who is Jewish, said she felt unrepresented when the invocation was closed with the words “In Jesus name, Amen.”

When she brought it up with a faculty member, Glazer was invited to give the next invocation, and has given a number of invocations at school events since then.

Glazer said she gives invocations that are nonsectarian, and that she also supports the idea of moments of silence or reflection in place of sectarian prayer at school events.

“It’s kind of a sticky situation, especially at a university where you want everybody to express their opinion,” Glazer said, adding, “You don’t profess to people so much as discuss.”

Glazer said she wanted to create an interfaith alliance at UNG so that students of all faiths or of no faith could talk openly with one another about religious and cultural issues, and so that students of minority faiths, including herself, could be represented on campus.

“I felt very isolated,” she said.

She said she didn’t feel that way because the school or its students did anything wrong, but simply because of the Christian-dominant culture.

“There are a lot of people with very similar views that happen to not be my views,” she said.

At meetings of the Interfaith Alliance, which has 10 to 12 regular members, Glazer said students can discuss their views with one another even if those views aren’t the same.

“We talk about everything — life, death, love,” she said. “A diverse array of topics.”

Glazer said she wants to be clear that she’s not against prayer, which she said “never comes from ill will,” but that she thinks it can include everyone.

“Prayer is a very private thing that’s done in a community setting,” she said, “and it’s confusing sometimes when that setting is in academia or the workplace.”

Maine said that while students may express their religion and pray freely on campus, faculty should not express their religious beliefs in a classroom setting or at school events.

This policy, she said, is in consideration of the diverse range of faiths held by students.

“In a university setting, we do have lots of different belief perspectives represented,” Maine said, “so the challenge for a university is to strike a balance between protecting the rights of individual free speech and, as a university, not endorsing beliefs.”

She said faculty, staff, and anyone in a position of authority with students should not talk about their own religion in a classroom setting.

“(Classroom dialogue) should reflect the course content, not personal beliefs (of the instructor),” Maine said.

This principle must be balanced with the principle of academic freedom that allows professors to create their own curriculum, Maine said, and the curriculum may include religion, especially in history or philosophy courses.

“That’s when you might have more discussion about the tenets of religious beliefs,” Maine said, “but that’s in an intellectual discussion, not something where you would expect the instructors to express their own individual belief.”

Maine said there is a difference in the way college students and children at public schools are viewed under the law, including court cases involving religion in schools, but that in both cases, respect for student belief or nonbelief is key.

The combination of free expression, diverse cultural backgrounds and an environment of intellectual discussion makes colleges a good place for people who are just entering adulthood to discover more about religion, Maine said.

“You have so many different perspectives represented,” she said, “it’s an opportunity for young adults to learn about other cultures and perspectives, and to have civil dialogue about issues like this.”



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