But the decision put Harvard in the awkward position of having to arbitrate what constitutes legitimate religious practice. Marine claims there was a “moral and ethical responsibility” for the administration to act on this request, telling the Associated Press last month that “it’s a pretty big breach of their moral and religious code … and it’s just not possible for them to be in a mixed environment.” But according to Aljawhary, “It’s not like we can’t work out when men are around.” In fact, “we were not ‘demanding’ women-only hours,” Aljawhary said. If the administration had said no, she said, “it would have been okay.”
Universities are often forced to alter their policies to accommodate the religious views of students–such as changing test dates on religious holidays or accommodating special dietary restrictions. But what happens when students hold a relatively extreme version of religious practice? And perhaps more importantly, what happens when that practice comes into conflict with other values important to the university?
Religion is not something that just occupies the space between one’s ears; it generally pushes itself in the public space, and confers upon an individual some slack in terms of deviant behavior. The assessment by the powers that be as to what legitimate religious practice is is not new, and will always have to occur. Most people have their own particular spin on their own religious tradition and when authorities are called on to accommodate their religious needs those authorities have to judge the legitimacy and plausibility of those claims. Numerosity matters; the most common interpretations of a given religious tradition are going to be assumed to be more legitimate.
A few years ago a book came out, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, which argued that genuine neutrality and church-state separation is an illusion. In particular, the author makes the claim that the particular nature of American religiosity over the first two centuries of the republic’s existence was instrumental in the erection and maintenance of the “wall of separation.” In short, a Protestant mainline consensus which deemphasizes issues of ritual and practice in favor of particular doctrinal professions or community activities was a background assumption of the evolution of church-state separation. During the 20th century to some extent both American Roman Catholics and Jews aceded to the norms of Protestantism. That consensus is collapsing in the face of both increased pluralism and the decline of mainline Protestantism at the center of our religious culture.
Which brings me to the point of diversity. In the piece above the author notes that “extreme versions” of practice can cause problems in terms of accommodation. Remember the Muslim woman who did not wish to show her face on her driver’s license photo? But deviation from the central tendency of mainstream norms is not the only issue one should consider, the sum of small deviations about the median might be just as disruptive. By this, I mean to suggest that a large number of religionists who have modest needs maybe just as costly in terms of accommodation as smaller numbers of extremists.
Note: Religion is just a boundary condition in terms of maintaining community norms. The issue at the Harvard gym was sex segregation motivated by the discomfort (assumed) of some Muslim women on campus, but as noted in many articles on the topic other universities have enacted male-exclusionary policies due to concerns of those who were motivated by feminist norms. A society riven by a welter of values is going to be characterized by constant debate and discussion about the outlines of the public spaces, and many of these debates will be won on the battlegrounds of politics. The religious angle is going to be more prominent than the political one because I think at least for the short term supernaturally justified behaviors are given more of a hearing than non-supernaturally rationalized choices and deviations.