A new religious accommodations policy that allows students across all Emory University schools to request academic accommodations if classwork, assignments or exams conflict with a religious holiday took effect on Aug. 1. 

The policy extends to provide accommodations for all “sincerely held religious beliefs and practices of employees and students,”  Dean of Religious Life Rev. Gregory McGonigle wrote in an email. 

Students can now better address issues when it comes to balancing religious life and workload with the policy, he added. The enhanced policy also reinforces Emory’s Equal Opportunity and Discrimination Harassment Policy, which prohibits discrimination based on the basis of religion, he said. 

The Office of Spiritual and Religious Life (OSRL) was deeply involved in the creation of the policy, according to McGonigle, and will help students who have issues requesting accommodations. To seek an accommodation, students must inform their professors or instructors ahead of time if they cannot attend class or will not be able to turn in an assignment on time, McGonigle said. 

“The process for requesting an academic accommodation for religious observance is for a student to contact their faculty member in writing as early as possible and request their desired accommodation,” McGonigle said. “They may need to talk with their faculty member to develop the best possible solution, and there are a number of Emory offices available to assist with that, including OSRL, the Ombuds Office, diversity officers in each school, department chairs and academic deans.”

Religious accommodations seek to provide those who practice a religion — both students and University employees — the ability to balance work and worship. The student is, therefore, responsible for requesting the accommodations and completing any homework or classwork for days they are absent, McGonigle said. 

The creation and growth of religious accommodations has been years in the making. As Emory continues to emphasize diversity, equity and inclusion, many faculty and University officials have taken a look into how religious life can take that step forward. 

“Soon after our Vice Provost for DEI Dr. Carol Henderson and I arrived at Emory in the fall of 2019, we realized that there were students who, from time to time, faced the issue of key assignments being scheduled on their major religious holidays and course attendance policies that sometimes did not allow them to fully observe their religious holidays,” McGonigle said. “This new policy is significant because it applies University-wide, which Emory has never had before, and it also outlines a process if students have difficulty achieving their accommodations.”

Rabbi Jordan Braunig, Emory’s Jewish chaplain, stated that he is proud that the University is taking steps to allow students to advocate for their religious needs, especially those relating to Judaism.

“One of the issues that came up over the last three years consistently was students struggling to communicate with faculty and TA[s],” Braunig said. “There were certain days where being in class or doing school or turning in paper or having exams wouldn’t be possible if they were living their Jewish life, so I am really grateful to the students for being fierce advocates and for working hard to push us and our office.” 

Students at a service in the Cannon Chapel. Courtesy of Emory University

According to the Office of Institutional Research and Decision Support (IRDS), as of fall 2021, nearly 1,000 Emory University students self-reported as Jewish, approximately 6% of the University-wide student body.  However, the IRDS data has limitations as it collects what students self-reported on their admission application. McGonigle said that since religion is personal information and there is “religious discrimination in our broader society,” students may underreport the data. More than 8,300 (52.9% ) students did not state or show preference for any religious affiliation in their applications. Of those who indicated a religion, almost 400 (2.5%) students identify as Muslim, around 500 (3.2%) students identify as Hindu and 156 (1.1%) students identify as Buddhist.  

Despite the policy’s accommodation mission, some students are concerned with the inclusivity of the policy and if it can genuinely encourage students to take time off to practice their religion. Oxford College Jewish Student Union co-President Rachel Friedman (23Ox) expressed concerns about the enforceability of the policy. While she is happy with the accommodations, she has not seen any practical change.

“It didn’t seem to be changing much or saying much,” Friedman said. “It was a lot of using words to say that professors ‘should’ do something but not requiring them to in any way.” 

Friedman also noted that she was not aware that the University implemented the policy. In fact, she did not find out until she was reached out for a comment from the Wheel on the policy. This was true among other student leaders of other faith-based groups on campus, with four presidents of religious groups not aware that a new policy was developed. The University didn’t publicize the policy until a Sept. 23 Emory News Center article

Some students had further complaints about religious inclusivity, however. Buddhist Club President Jasmine Mahadumrongkul (23B) mentioned a lack of religious attention at Oxford.  

“I get a lot of complaints from Oxford kids that we have a Buddhist chaplain on the campus at Emory, whereas Oxford students, they don’t really have that support,” Mahadumrongkul said.

However, McGonigle emphasized that new Buddhist Chaplain on the Atlanta campus, Venerable Priya Sraman, visits Oxford frequently and includes Oxford students on his Buddhist retreats.

Other students agree that there seems to be a divide between the two campuses in terms of resources and attention for those with a religious life, despite an OSRL being located on both campuses – Oxford has an office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL), while Atlanta has an Office of  Spiritual and Religious Life (OSRL).   

The University officials interviewed by the Wheel agreed that there is still more to be done. While this is a good start, they claim that the policy only defines an institution-wide policy and establishes official accommodations students can make.

“Having this University-wide policy is a great step forward for us in clarifying our common values, but policies also require education and implementation,” McGonigle said. “So there may still be a time of fully adjusting to the spirit of this policy in every instance, but I think Emory is making strong progress in this regard.”

Senior Associate Dean of Faculty for the Emory College of Arts and Sciences Deboleena Roy, who is responsible for overseeing faculty affairs, hiring faculty and faculty development, echoed the belief that the policy is the beginning of a greater diverse, equity, and inclusive environment. She did not play a role in the policy creation but is enforcing the policy on the faculty side by ensuring accommodations are being made appropriately.

“My job is to make the faculty aware of the University-wide policy,” Roy said. “There is actually some change going on in terms of what we might be asking for faculty to start including in their syllabi around religious accommodations.”

Roy elaborated on future initiatives that offices are taking in accordance with the accommodation policy, including the implementation of a notification system for when students are not in class for a religious holiday. This potential system could assist professors in keeping track of students and help clear any confusion that may arise. 

“I do know that the [Office of Undergraduate Education] is also trying to modify — and this part has not yet been finalized — but modify a type of absence notification system so students can actually let their professor know ahead of time,” Roy added.

All student leaders interviewed by the Wheel expressed similar ideas. They also wish that, as leaders of their religious groups, they can open up not only to incoming or existing people of the same faith but also encourage other community members to join in on celebrations, traditions and holidays.

The Inter-Religious Council, an Atlanta campus undergraduate body with representatives from numerous religious backgrounds, is working toward making Emory more accepting and collaborative.

“We’re trying to create a community,” Mahadumrongkul said. “Even though it’s called Buddhist Club, it doesn’t have to be for Buddhist people only. We’re trying to be really inclusive and a lot of non-Buddhist people from different backgrounds are coming to learn more about meditation and mindfulness.”

Oxford College Hindu Student Association (HSA) President Navya Vavalava (23Ox) spoke towards a similar sense of community-building in regards to Hinduism. 

“I know that Hinduism is something that’s very well known culturally,” Vavalava said. “I believe it’s a culture as well as a religion — and I think that, last year I remember, there was one student who put up a poster describing what Diwali was. I think that my idea of growth is not only engaging the Hindu students but also, I wouldn’t say spreading, but maybe increasing awareness of what Hinduism looks like to people who don’t necessarily know because it’s not something that a lot of Indians or Hindus outwardly portray. ”

Both administrators and students touted Emory’s advance of interfaith engagement and the hope that more awareness can be brought to the diversity of religious practices at Atlanta and Oxford. A new Interfaith Center is scheduled to open fall 2023 to facilitate the bridge between the thousands of students who practice various religions at Emory. 

“I think, with the new depth we have achieved in terms of our multi-faith resources and the new Emory Interfaith Center opening next fall, that our spiritual and interfaith activities will continue to grow as an important part of our community life at the very heart of Emory,” McGonigle stated.

Braunig agreed, emphasizing the importance of spirituality to the student body. 

“My hope is that our office is engaging students who come with specific religious traditions that they want to be able to practice and that we’re also supporting this huge number of students who see themselves as spiritual but not religious — that our work is helping people find meaning,” Braunig said. 

Correction (10/22/2022 at 3:42pm.): A previous version of the article said that the new policy only includes some major religious holidays. In fact, it includes accommodations for all religious practices that are “sincerely observed.” Additionally, it was clarified that the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life at Atlanta is different than the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Emory. Finally, information was added which suggested that the Buddhist chaplain frequently visited the Oxford campus.