MSA, Faculty Council working to amend religious observance policy

The proposed change to the Faculty Handbook would include language that require faculty to excuse students for religious obligations.

Faculty Council and the Missouri Students Association are working to revise the university’s religious observance policy.

Under the current policy, faculty members are encouraged to excuse students from classes, tests and other activities for religious obligations, but are not required to do so.

Jewish Student Organization President Thalia Sass said the way the policy is currently drafted could be problematic for students of varying religious beliefs.

“The current policy is not effective simply because of the word ‘encourage,’” she said. “Professors are not required to excuse minority students from class if they are observing a sincere religious holiday or have another religious obligation.”

Sass said she contacted MSA senator Alex Ndikum and Academic Affairs Committee Chairman Ben Vega and urged them to change the policy.

Vega said he and Ndikum initially planned to propose changing the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative calendar to include times that certain religions use to pray on a routine basis. However, they had decided the religious observance policy was more problematic and are working on drafting changes to that first.

In order for the change to take place, however, Faculty Council would need to vote to amend the Faculty Handbook.

Ndikum and Vega presented a first draft to the Faculty Council on Sept. 4, but council members concurred at the time that the language used in the proposed change needed more work.

The draft stated the university should “make every reasonable effort to accommodate the sincerely held religious observance obligations of students.”

Sass said she believes the changes could give students of all religions the opportunity to celebrate and practice religious traditions without academic punishment.

“(The changes) put religious minorities on the same academic playing field as the majority,” she said. “Students should not be punished academically because of their religious practices. This policy makes sure that if a student has sincere religious obligation that conflict with class, they are able to still practice their religion without being penalized academically so long as they make up all relevant work.”

Vega said he and Ndikum will work with Nicole Monnier, Faculty Council Academic Affairs chairwoman, to provide more specific definitions for terms like “sincerely held” religious obligations.

“We will be working on this initiative with the Faculty Council for the foreseeable future, but I don’t anticipate any insurmountable obstacles,” Vega said. “The most we have had to contend with at this point is clarification of terms within the statement. Once those have been ironed out, we should be good to go.”

Monnier said the feedback to proposed changes from groups like Four Front and the Graduate and Professional Council have been mostly positive.

“I’m impressed by the student enthusiasm and the work that’s been put into it,” she said. “It’s endorsed by various religious groups on campus and the GPC. So I think it’s something that’s real and important.”

Vega said he would like to see the changes approved and implemented by August 2015. He said he believes the policy would help both faculty and students accommodate different religions on campus.

“We are pleased with the new policy because it puts responsibility on faculty to do what they can to ensure that students are able to get the most out of their education while practicing their religion,” he said. “(It) also puts responsibility on students to inform their professors of their religious obligations in time to plan around them. With an appropriate amount of notice, anything can be worked around.”

The Muslim Student Organization did not respond to The Maneater’s requests for interviews.

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