As Washington State University students go through the advising process and register for spring semester classes, they are encouraged to consider how their classes might impact their spiritual and secular practices.

Being aware of religious holidays took on a new level of importance with the passage of Washington State Senate Bill 5166 in 2019. The bill requires university and college faculty 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. As defined in the legislation, “reasonably accommodate” means faculty must coordinate with students to reschedule exams or other activities necessary for completion of the program.

The Senate bill stipulates that students who need to be absent from a class, miss an exam or other academic requirements because of religious obligations must request accommodations from their instructors during the first two weeks of classes.

As part of its commitment to understanding, valuing, and respecting unique spiritual and secular practices, an online calendar has been created to help students, faculty and staff learn more about religious holidays and when they take place.

The WSU Pullman Interfaith Working Group, organized by the Division of Student Affairs, created the Interfaith calendar which includes traditional observances and days of major religious significance during the 2020–2021 academic year. Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to use the calendar to help identify classes, exams, activities, or events which may intersect with religious observances.

Faculty-student coordination key

Katie Forsythe, director of the Transformational Change Initiative and co‑chair of the Interfaith group, said it is important that students not have to choose between giving attention to academics at the expense of their faith, or visa-versa.

“Students should know it is their right to receive accommodations, but they also need to advocate for themselves and let their instructors know if there is a conflict,” Forsythe said.

Forsythe said email works best for most instructors. WSU policy requires faculty to include information about religious accommodations on course syllabi.

Manuel Acevedo, who directs mentoring programs and assessment in Multicultural Student Services and member of the interfaith group, said the Senate bill does not address how faith impacts the non-academic aspects of students’ lives such as where they live, work or eat. The group examined these areas and included some guidelines on the calendar website.

Flexibility in the workplace

Students, faculty, and staff are also encouraged to notify supervisors if their jobs hinder their religious practices. Working group members consulted with Human Resource Services (HRS), and while there is not a policy pertaining to religious accommodations in the workplace at WSU, HRS encourages all employers to make such accommodations whenever possible.

Forsythe said asking supervisors for time‑off can be awkward or intimidating, especially when it centers around religion, something rarely discussed in the workplace.

“We want students to know that asking their supervisors to provide time‑off for religious reasons is something the university supports,” she said.

Dining Services plays a role

Dining Services Registered Dietitian Alice Ma said WSU chefs already provide many vegetarian and vegan options that accommodate the dietary recommendations of some religions, such as Buddhism.

Ma said students visiting any dining center will see some dishes labeled Halal. Additionally, the Southside Dining Center also offers Halal meat options. Halal food options were requested by Muslim students a couple of years ago seeking meats that are Halal-certified, meaning in part, the animals providing the meat are slaughtered in a certain way and not stored or prepared with types of food that are not Halal, such as alcohol.

“To be able to practice a Halal diet on our campus is very meaningful to our Muslim students,” Ma said. “It’s important that all our students feel included and have a variety of options that suit their individual needs.”

She invites students wishing to see changes to the current food offerings for religious reasons to send her an email.

The working group also supports a collaborative effort between the Access Center and Housing and Residence Life to accommodate students needing special housing arrangements. Forsythe said some students’ religions prohibit them from living on coed floors or using coed bathrooms, for example.

Involving the community

The Interfaith Working Group, which consists of about 11 WSU staff members, is making plans to broaden participation to become an Interfaith Council. Acevedo said the group recently hosted a first meeting with local religious leaders. A survey designed to engage students has been sent to a couple dozen religious student organizations.

“It is important for us to let students know WSU welcomes, affirms, and validates all of their identities, including their spiritual or secular realm,” Acevedo said.