At the heart of Georgetown’s mission statement is a commitment not only to preserve the university’s Catholic and Jesuit heritage, but to allow for “serious and sustained discourse among people of different faiths, cultures and beliefs.” This commitment, of course, helps make Georgetown the culturally-rich community that it is.

Nevertheless, the university has not always sufficiently accommodated the traditions and identities of non-Catholic students. In the past, for instance, the university did not officially require professors to excuse students from class for major non-Catholic religious holidays. Instead, the university asked students to take up conflicts with their professors, and encouraged professors to accommodate them.

Normally, students were able to do so without incident. This past October, however, presented an important exception. One Jewish student discovered that her professor had assigned her a group presentation to be made on Yom Kippur. Despite informing her professor, her dean and her rabbi beforehand, the student encountered great difficulty in rescheduling the presentation without penalty.

The case made it painfully clear that students at Georgetown who celebrate non-Catholic religious holidays could do so only at the behest of the professors who grant them exemptions from class. Students who could not obtain that exemption were faced with choosing between their grade and their religious faith – both of which should be important to their contribution to the educational environment at Georgetown, and neither of which the student would have to sacrifice if he or she were Catholic.

It may have been expected that a non-Catholic student on a Jesuit campus should expect to make these kinds of sacrifices. However, that kind of policy was likely detrimental to the sort of serious and sustained interreligious dialogue that defines our university.

For these reasons, the Office of the Provost and the Office of Campus Ministry should be commended in responding to the incident by implementing a new policy that accommodates all religious observances. By requiring that professors make accommodations for major religious holidays, the university guarantees that non-Catholic students have the same opportunities as Catholic students to express and take part in their religious traditions.

Furthermore, by providing professors with a list of these major holidays and encouraging students to inform professors of their participation in these celebrations, the university avoids exactly the kind of miscommunication that can lead to serious problems at a university as diverse as Georgetown. Many professors, for example, may not have realized that for Orthodox Christians, Easter falls on a different day than for Roman Catholics. Now, they have no excuse to deny an exemption request if, say, a Muslim student asks for time off at the end of Ramadan.

This is exactly the kind of policy that nurtures a religiously rich and vibrant campus where interreligious dialogue can take place. In the future, the Office of the Provost and the Office of Campus Ministry should maintain this healthy awareness of campus cultural issues and potential conflicts.

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