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What is the proper course of action if while teaching an undergraduate or even secondary school course an assignment violates the religious beliefs of a student?

For a more concrete example of where this might happen, let us consider an art class with a Muslim student (Disclamer: I am not an adherent to, or scholar of, Islam; please forgive me for any misunderstandings this post might contain):

Within Islam it is considered haram (forbidden by God) [1] to produce images of non-plant living creatures (including humans), this is called tasweer.[2]

Now if I were to assign a portrait of a person to the class as an assignment, what would be the most ethical option, should a student raise a concern to me about this? Would it be appropriate to assign an alternate assignment?

[1]: Similar to a christian sin, but with a stronger connotation from what I can tell; literally: taboo.

[2]: I believe this is from a hadith, but one that is deemed to be the most accurate/reliable.

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Another concrete example is "you have to use this pirated software for your assignment, download it from the course website". Although this also violates laws, only religious students objected. –  marczellm Mar 6 at 11:42
In this particular case, I would respect the student's wishes, and follow the suggestions below, BUT refer them to the outstanding research by Professor Michael Barry on the tradition of courtly art, ie Indian and Persian miniatures which were anthropomorphic and authorised and valued by the highest Islamic religious authorities. I'd also consider involving everyone in a course in sacred geometry drawing on the art and symbolism of Islamic culture. –  Leon Conrad Mar 6 at 12:22
@LeonConrad I wouldn't recommend that - it comes across as suggesting to the student that he is misinterpreting the religious requirements, or suggesting he follow other interpretations of those requirements than his own. The student does not want to feel like he has to convince you of his interpretation, nor do you want to be convinced; the student just wants to know how he can meet class requirements given certain restrictions. –  ff524 Mar 6 at 14:14
@LeonConrad In the context of education in general, it is certainly nice to widen horizons and awareness :) My concern only applies to the student saying, "I can't do this assignment because of the requirements of my religious observance" and the instructor replying in that context "This is another interpretation of those requirements" –  ff524 Mar 6 at 15:35
Don't think that only Muslims will object to such an assignment. All Mosaic religions have such a prohibition, although exactly how broadly it is applied certainly varies. Someone who uses a broad interpretation probably shouldn't be in such a class, however. –  Ben Voigt Mar 7 at 0:21

7 Answers 7

up vote 51 down vote accepted

If you can make an accommodation that allows the student to participate

  • without violating his religious observance, and
  • without compromising the educational goals of the class, and
  • without requiring an extreme amount of effort on your part,

then it is reasonable to make the accommodation.

I regularly miss classes and exams due to religious observance. My school has a very clear policy on the matter:

  • If students have to miss a class session, exam, or are otherwise unable to participate in a course requirement due to religious observance, they must notify the professor and a certain dean in a timely manner (the definition of "a timely manner" is further specified in the policy)
  • If said student follows the above requirement, they cannot be penalized for their religious observance and the professor must offer a fair alternative (e.g., makeup exam or assignment)

If your university has no policy on the matter, feel free to adopt mine, and specify it in your syllabus at the beginning of the semester.

However, I would not take a class where I know the main requirement of a class would violate my religious observance. Indeed, I know people who have refrained from pursuing a career because a non-negotiable required class for that field would require something that violates their religious observance. *

So, if the course is Figure Drawing and someone registers knowing that he cannot draw the human figure... I don't think you are required to let him pass the class by doing still lives instead. If the course is Introduction to Art for Non-Majors, it may be possible to offer an alternative to the portrait assignment.

This applies more generally as well. If a student in good faith (i.e., not to get out of doing work) considers an assignment

  • illegal,
  • unethical,
  • compromising to his health/safety,
  • etc.

it seems reasonable to offer an alternative assignment if it does not compromise the educational goals of the course.

* See: Can a Kohen become a doctor?

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+1 for the combination of "be understanding and tolerant" with "don't let it get ridiculous". –  xLeitix Mar 6 at 7:26
It's also not the job of places of learning to label superstition. An answer similar to ff524 will go much further to promote learning than injecting your own opinions on religion or any other subject in the classroom. Stick to teaching the material and follow the charter. –  user2988387 Mar 6 at 19:11
This seems to me to be a pretty good answer, the only thing that I would add is that after becoming aware of a potential religious or cultural issue it would be a good idea to add a suitable caveat to the module description/specification, e.g. "the assessment on this module involves figure drawing". Hopefully that means that in future this sort of issue can be negotiated before the student registers for the module, and emphasises that the student has a responsibility to select appropriate modules (where there is a choice). Hindsight is always 20/20, but that is no reason not to use it! ;o) –  Dikran Marsupial Mar 6 at 20:20
I would second @DikranMarsupial's comment. As an example, when I was in high school the senior-year biology course included a laboratory class where you had to dissect a fetal pig. This was considered an essential part of the course, and it was made very clear to all students completing the introductory biology class that if they continued on to the advanced class they would have to carry out the dissection. If the student had any ethical or religious objections against dissecting a dead animal (or a pig in particular), they we warned not to take the class. –  AmeliaBR Mar 6 at 21:08

It's not the job of places of learning to give way to superstition. Indeed, quite the reverse: the whole Enlightenment Project was about bringing light into darkness, and all the Academia I'm familiar with puts itself broadly in the Enlightenment tradition.

So yes, this answer will read as uncompromising. Because, from experience, I've found that rigorous education is incompatible with compromising that rigour in favour of molly-coddling someone's religious beliefs.

There is no sane middle ground. If you're going to start compromising the quality of your teaching to avoid offending someone's belief, you'll quickly find yourself running out of space. Someone's going to get offended that you're teaching males and females at the same time, sat next to each other. Someone's going to get offended that anyone's drawing the human figure, let alone that they have to. Someone's going to get offended that you don't mention their pet crank theory alongside science as if they were somehow of equal merit.

If a particular course's actions are in contradiction to a student's religion, then there are two routes here. If the student is legally a child, then the student completes the actions - they are under the school's guardianship when in school. If the student is legally an adult, then they have the problem, and it's not fair on any of the other students that they should make their problem, the institution's problem. They can either fail that part of the course, or they can do the work.

If a student's beliefs contradict knowledge, science or art, that's not the problem of the place of learning. That's the problem of the student.

If this is about children, then the responsible adults are guilty of abuse, for bringing that state of affairs about, and the school should do as much as it reasonably can to make amends for that failure. Note that I am not saying that a religious upbringing is necessarily abuse. I am saying that teaching children nonsense such as creationism is abuse, because it can cripple that child's future opportunities.

If this is about adults, then they've taken responsibility for failing that part of their education, and should be marked down accordingly.

This has been something of a hot topic in Britain recently, where the teaching of creationism and other ignorances is on the rise, where state-funded schools have been breaking equality laws by selecting staff on the basis of gender, sexuality and religion, and where pressure has been put on educational establishments to subvert the teaching of several branches of knowledge, including the censoring of some exam questions on evolution, and the censoring of two university atheist society's display of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and of "Jesus and Mo" t-shirts, because these were inconsistent with some extremist religous interpretations.

Academia is the bulwark against ignorance and superstition.

I'm not saying that religion = ignorance and superstition. Creationism = ignorance and superstition. Refusing to draw the human figure = ignorance and superstition. Avoiding listening to or playing music = ignorance and superstition. Preventing females from being educated = ignorance and superstition.

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"all the Academia I'm familiar with puts itself broadly in the Enlightenment tradition". I, on the other hand, am studying at a Catholic university. I disagree with equating religion to ignorance, superstition, darkness and failure. I find the wording of this answer somewhat offensive. –  marczellm Mar 6 at 11:40
There is a big difference between students disagreeing with the actual substance of what they're taught (as in your example of Creationism) and students refusing to engage in certain activities (as in the example of art in the question). I think you're answering a question which wasn't asked. –  TRiG Mar 6 at 12:58
This is not what the question was primarily concerned with; the example (and the general case) is about when a student cannot complete something because the action is against their religion, whereas this answers the question of what to do when the knowledge contradicts their religion. In the case of the former, it is not that the student refuses to accept the knowledge, but that they are only allowed to apply it to things that are not haram (sin, et cetera). –  Juan Sebastian Lozano Muñoz Mar 6 at 13:11
I have downvoted this. Multicultural societies (such as the one in which I live) need to be tolerant of religious and cultural differences, e.g. academic institutions should make reasonable adjustments where necessary. The suggestion that bringing up children in a religious faith is abuse is gratuitously offensive. With rights come responsibilities, the responsibility that goes with free speech is to refrain from causing needless offence in discussing things with which you disagree. This sort of polemic only appeals to those that already agree with you and will change nobody's mind. –  Dikran Marsupial Mar 6 at 13:38
-1 for adopting an unnecessarily intolerant tone, for effectively equating religion to "ignorance and superstition" at the end, for implying that the religious belief of the student "is the problem of the student", and for ultimately not answering the question. –  badroit Mar 6 at 15:58

If the student chooses, or sucumbs to parental directives to refuse some components of education, then the student or their parents have to accept that they can't achieve so much in that realm. One day the student will have to make A PERSONAL CHOICE as to their direction. Offering them a free ride is not appropriate to that choice. If they persist with their choice, to not participate in some aspects of the multicultural society they live in, then they surely will be happy that they are not 'infected' with whatever perceived ill they deem to spring from the offensive activities.

Why do they want to be seen as masters (ie high grade scorers) of a system they partially or wholly reject? Do we really want to teach children to lie to themselves and others like this?

Make your choices (yes, even as a child) and take the consequences.

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I think most people choose not to participate in some aspects of the multicultural society they live in. For example, I choose not to participate in misogyny, racism, homophobia, which are all aspects of the society I live in. You choose not to participate in religion, which is (probably) a part of the society you live in, and I respect that choice. Recognizing that other people's choices can be valid (even if they're not the same as your own and you don't understand the reason for them) is part of living in a multicultural society. –  ff524 Mar 7 at 20:06
@ff524: I think you just (unintentionally?) compared religion to racism, etc. –  Mehrdad Mar 9 at 11:10
@Mehrdad Both are in the category of "things that exist in society," that's as far as my 'comparison' goes. –  ff524 Mar 9 at 14:01
@ff524 - correct - I choose not to participate in religion, for example. I therefore have to live with not experiencing the alleged ecstasy on offer. So what's your point? –  aclarke Apr 22 at 6:56
@aclarke just that rejection of one part of society (on religious, moral, legal, medical, or other grounds) need not mean that an individual should be excluded from other parts of that society (e.g. the rest of the educational system). Hence my view that a reasonable accommodation can be offered, if possible. –  ff524 Apr 23 at 2:49

You really cannot expect that the assignment should be counted as done just because of your religion. However, if you are a student,

  • Try to ask the professor to adapt the assignment. If picturing humans is not allowed, maybe picturing geometric figures is ok.
  • Ask representative of your religion if the activity is really disallowed in your context. Most of religious restrictions are about actions, not about studying (may be exceptions of course).
  • If you know you should drop studies but are too weak to do this, the representative of your religion may just forgive you.

If you are the person teaching, you may think about adapting course (is the disallowed activity essential?) and still check with representative of religion if the students do not interpret restrictions unnecessarily broadly. Additionally, you may discuss with your administration the possibility to suggest the alternative but equally serious and difficult course for such students. Some universities like Zurich ETH allow to choose between many alternative courses, with only small percent being mandatory.

Still, if there are many assignments contradicting the religion, this probably shows that it may be lots more problems at work later. If you are not allowed to kill, that is the point of attempting the carrier of the jet fighter pilot? Even if you can actually study, saying nobody is killed in flight simulator or during bombing tests, this may not make much sense.

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While this is a nice answer, it answers a somewhat different question than the one asked, since the question here is from the point of view of the person teaching. –  Tobias Kildetoft Mar 6 at 13:07
The person teaching can take first two actions as well (change the assignment or clarify with the representative of the confession). He may also ask the student how one is going to work later if cannot even study. –  Audrius Meškauskas Mar 6 at 13:33
check with representative of religion - Do not do this. Unless you're teaching religion, it's not up to you to tell the student that his interpretation of religious requirements are incorrect. –  ff524 Mar 7 at 19:48
You mean, it is up to the student to decide if certain assignment contradicts some very specific religion he may have? Like "my religion disallows me to learn this type if differential equation, that also seems too difficult for me"? Impressive. –  Audrius Meškauskas Mar 7 at 20:19
Most religions exist in many variations and interpretations, and if you find a representative of the religion who says "This is permitted" the student can still say (legitimately) "That is not the interpretation I follow." (Evaluating whether the student is making his claim in good faith or trying to avoid doing work is another issue entirely, which I don't think the OP is asking about.) –  ff524 Mar 7 at 20:24

As an educator, the most appropriate response is to immediately escalate the matter in a neutral way - present only the facts. The educational institution has staff and lawyers to interpret scenarios like this and provide recommendations to the teacher. I would not recommend making any immediate compromises or snap-judgements with the student. Educating students is stressful enough. Let those who specialize in this type of issue resolve it, and you can focus on the education of your students.

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In my six years in secular institutes of higher education, no professor has ever escalated to the dean responsible for such matters. We've always been able to settle the issue ourselves in a friendly and amicable way. –  ff524 Mar 7 at 19:50
The question was not what is currently done by some educators, but what the proper course of action is. Most organizations have strict policies now around these topics due to the rising frequency of lawsuits over the slightest misunderstanding. Know your organization's policies and follow them. If your organization does not have any on these issues, good luck. Some teachers are not charismatic enough to resolve the issue, and some students aren't looking for a compromise. It's probably best to follow policy to protect yourself in the event of a litigious student (or parents). –  user171212 Mar 7 at 23:39
I agree that escalating at the slightest hint of a possible conflict between student and teacher is wise. However, it isn't necessary as a first resort (unless of course school policy requires it.) –  ff524 Mar 9 at 0:35

I think this depends on what level you are teaching at. Below college-level I think you may need to find an alternative (but just as difficult or more difficult) assignment.

It is a slippery-slope when people institute their private beliefs on a teacher's assignment. It is not like the assignment was for them to go to a Sunday mass. If the assignment was hitting a lot of religious notes, you as the teacher should have a plan. Have the students/parents sign-off on the topics/assignments or offer them another assignment to do.

If we are talking college level courses the assignments and tests should be on your syllabus. If they don't want to do them then they can drop out of your class or they can get an F on the assignment.

As a teacher you are trying to teach them a skillset. If that includes something that is against their beliefs they shouldn't get to pass the class because they don't have the knowledge/skill. There is just too much grey area here and obviously the students could tell you whatever they want and it allows for animosity from students that have to do the assignments.

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The most important thing first: it is not your job to know every religion, belief or variation of it, it is up to the student or his/her parents to tell you beforehand what they cannot accept in class. Even between two of the same religion, no one can tell how direct one rule is taken by the one or the other. That said, your responsibility however is to give your students and their parents enough time in advance to notify you of potential issues.

If you work with a class where this can be an issue, a good idea would be to write down the topics for the upcoming course and hand it over to your students, and then explain why you are doing this. Depending on the age of your students, they might misunderstand this as cheating away from class. In addition you should give your students the chance for a fair alternative. If such alternative is not obvious, you should talk to the student or the parents in question to find one. If drawing an animated object is considered a sin, you could hand out a picture of someone to draw. Whether or not this complies to the religion, I however cannot tell.

Religion is nothing you can come by with logic, people believe the strangest things. For some of them compromises can be found, for others probably not. It is a good thing to try to find a compromise but in strange cases also valid to refuse them. If one's religion for example expects that boys and girls are taught in separate rooms, the only thing you can offer to the parents is for their child to change school.

Also you need to keep in mind how the other students will treat a kid, which is the reason why they can't do something they want, cannot watch a certain movie or must skip topics they would have been interested in. Some things they can accept if it is explained properly, others probably not. And in the later case it might be for the better of the kid in question to not give into the believes, as the "torture" following that would be much worse.

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