UC Davis administrators are rethinking the campus’ definition of religious discrimination as a result of a legal challenge by 25 undergraduate and graduate students.
The university’s Principles of Community used to link to a glossary of related terms. Associate Executive Vice Chancellor Rahim Reed removed that glossary on Feb. 16 after receiving a letter from Timothy J. Swickward Esq., an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, on behalf of the 25 students.
While the letter, also addressed to Chancellor Linda Katehi, did not request that the entire glossary be taken offline, it did object to the university defining religious/spiritual discrimination as “the loss of power and privilege to those who do not practice the dominant culture’s religion. In the United States, this is institutionalized oppressions toward those who are not Christian.”
The definition implies that individuals are allowed to discriminate against Christians, but not other religious faiths, Swickward said.
The university shared the students’ concerns over the definition, Reed said.
“The glossary was originally created for the potential of helping others gain a better understanding of the Principles of Community, but we see the potential for misinterpretation and it doesn’t represent the university,” he said.
The Principles of Community were established in 1990 and promote a climate of justice and mutual respect, with the glossary created roughly seven or eight years ago. University officials are currently reviewing the rest of the glossary’s definitions but have not determined whether or not the glossary will return at all, Reed said.
ASUCD Senator Yena Bae, a Christian student belonging to the Mustard Seed Ministry, said she understands why students might find the definition offensive.
“It singles out Christians as the oppressors,” she said. “I agree that the wording was off, though it was obviously not intended to be read that way.”
Students are offended by the definition’s implications that Christians can not be discriminated against, while in fact, many fear a bias against them in higher education, Swickward said.
“The UC Davis policy is simply nonsensical given the environment on most university campuses where Christian students, if anything, are among the most likely to be subjected to discrimination because of their faith,” he said.
Swickward cited a 2007 study entitled “Religious Beliefs & Behavior of College Faculty,” conducted by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, as evidence. The study suggested that faculty are generally tolerant of religious groups, with the exception of Evangelical Christians. Out of the surveyed 1,200 faculty members, 53 percent said they felt unfavorable toward Evangelicals.
A Christian student wrote to Reed previously about feelings of discrimination, Swickward said.
“This is not the first time that a Christian student has written to him about the climate of discrimination at UC Davis and requesting that his office work to provide protections for Christian students of the kind that the [Office of Campus Community Relations] provides to others,” he said.
Reed, however, said that he looked through his records and could not find the aforementioned complaint.
“We usually receive calls about religious holidays in November and December, relating to the decorating or lack of decorating around campus. But, I don’t know what [Swickward’s] referring to,” he said.
Thomas Waters, president of the Agnostic and Atheist Student Association and senior civil engineering major, was surprised that some Christians feel oppressed in higher education.
“I don’t think they are discriminated against more than any other group,” he said. “I think plenty of professors on campus are Christian or in favor of Christians.”
Allison Coudert, professor of religious studies, said that it is logical for some religious students to feel misunderstood in a secular university, where students are encouraged to question accepted ideas and beliefs.
“Students who reject the idea that religions develop and insist their particular interpretation of religious texts and their particular religious worldview as the only legitimate ones are bound to find a secular university threatening and professors who ask them to evaluate their beliefs intimidating,” she said in an e-mail interview.
Bae has never felt discriminated against in class due to her faith. However, Bae said that she knows other Christian students on campus who feel as though they have experienced difficulty due to religious beliefs.
“For science classes that deal with things like evolution, I know some students might feel like they can’t express what they feel is right because their faith goes against the academic topic,” she said. “There are people who feel like they have to rework their own thoughts to align with what is being taught.”
Students often claim to know what their particular religion teaches, and when a professor tells them to look at other interpretations, it can be difficult to accept, Coudert said.
“We live in an age of identity politics, when every group seems to feel it is discriminated against,” she said. “What those of us who have the privilege to teach at Davis try to do is to get students to think beyond their own self-interest for the good of the community at large. Identity politics is a first step to understanding oneself, but only a very small first step.”
JANELLE BITKER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.