There’s a bill currently making its way through the Washington state legislature that seems sensible on the surface but could open the door to a lot of problems.
SB 5166 is basically meant to give “religious accommodations” for postsecondary students. For example, they shouldn’t be punished for missing an exam that falls on a religious holiday. Sounds reasonable enough.
But check out this language in the bill:
Students’ sincerely held religious beliefs and practices must be reasonably accommodated with respect to all examinations and other requirements to successfully complete a program… Instructors must accept at face value the sincerity of the students’ religious beliefs and both instructors and students must keep requests for accommodation confidential.
That vague language says that any academic requirement could be avoided if it conflicts with someone’s religion. (And only religion. It’s not like philosophical differences are acceptable excuses in this bill.)
We’ve already seen this kind of conflict occur when a Christian counselor-in-training says she can’t work with a gay client without suggesting “conversion therapy.” Should a university reward a student whose beliefs get in the way of their education like that — much less violate the profession’s ethical guidelines?
What if a Christian medical student doesn’t want to learn about reproductive care or contraception like his classmates? Is that a legitimate accommodation a school would have to make?
Hell, what’s stopping a student from saying “Homework goes against my religion”? That would be acceptable under the language of this bill, and schools would be forced to honor the request.
American Atheists says SB 5166 is “dangerous” for three specific reasons:
1. Sets virtually no limits on the types of accommodations in the name of religion that educational institutions must unquestionably provide to students who so request.
2. Provides no explicit protections that would prevent religion-based accommodations from burdening third parties, such as educators and other students.
3. Prevents oversight since the requests and accommodations must be kept confidential.
“The religious exemptions created by this bill will have severe and unpredictable effects on Washington’s higher education system,” warned Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy. “SB 5166 is vague, overly broad, and ripe for abuse. Washington lawmakers should consider less sweeping methods to protect religious minority students.”
No one is saying religious requests can’t be accommodated, but they shouldn’t come in lieu of the very education these schools feel is necessary for all students. There’s a difference between rescheduling an exam and learning the subject material.
In a letter sent to the state’s House Committee on College and Workforce Development, AA’s Vice President for Legal and Policy Alison Gill notes that this is essentially a state-level version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was meant to accommodate religious beliefs but turned into a weapon that allows, among other things, religious business owners to refuse contraception coverage in their employees’ insurance plans.
We strongly urge you reconsider this misguided legislation. The religious exemptions created by this bill will have severe and unpredictable effects on Washington’s higher education system. We recommend that you instead consider less intrusive and prescriptive ways to protect minority religious belief in higher education.
As it stands, the bill has passed the State Senate and sits in a House committee. It’s not too late for Washington residents to contact their elected officials and urge them to vote against or amend this bill before it becomes a new tool for religious people who just don’t want to play by the rules.
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