Reflecting on Religious Freedom and a Case of Terrible Religious Discrimination

Yesterday was Yom Kippur and last week was Rosh Hashanah. During this period of celebration, reflection, self-evaluation, and repentance I had occasion to learn about a terrible violation of religious freedom. Sadly, it occurred at a public university in the Western part of my state, Michigan (it was not the University of Western Michigan).

A student asked his English Professor if it was okay to miss class for Rosh Hashanah. The professor said the student would only be excused if he wrote a paper on the evils of Israeli occupation. Yes, you read that correctly! I do not even know where to begin to address the legal problems with this situation.

First, there is obvious discrimination in this situation. The professor apparently assumed that because the student asked to miss class for a Jewish holiday the student must support occupation. This stereotyping by itself is remarkably discriminatory and clearly violates Michigan Law. As anyone reading this probably knows there are many diverse views within the Jewish Community on occupation of Palestinian land, and to assume that everyone has the same view and then to use that stereotype as a weapon when someone seeks religious accommodation is the essence of discrimination, but there is more.

Almost lost in the dark glow of this brazen discrimination is the fact that denial of the requested accommodation, even without the bigotry attached to that denial, violates Michigan Law. In McCready v. Hoffius, 586 N.W.2d 723 (Mich. 1998), vacated and remanded on other grounds, 593 N.W.2d 545 (Mich. 1999), the Michigan Supreme Court held that the free exercise provision in the Michigan Constitution requires that government have a compelling interest to deny a request for a religious accommodation. Here, the public university professor is a state actor and denying the requested accommodation, or placing such an absurd requirement in order to grant the accommodation, violates the Michigan constitution.

Michigan does not have a RFRA. Perhaps if we did this sort of thing would be easier to avoid since public universities would need to draft clearer religious accommodation policies (although MSU, where I am a faculty member, has a good policy on religious accommodation). This is another good reason for all states to have RFRAs so long as they do not protect for-profit entities (see earlier posts for this latter qualification).

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