The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


'Religious Holidays Aren't Represented Equally on Campus'—a Catholic campus, that is


The Loyola [Chicago] Phoenix reports:

It's that time of year again, and Loyola has decked out its buildings with decorations for the holiday season. But Christmas gets more attention on campus than other religious holidays.

Although Loyola fosters a space for non-Christian religions to practice their faith—such as in the Damen Student Center's second floor of Ministry Offices for Muslim, Hindu and Jewish students—there is a lack of public festivity compared to Christmas, such as decorations and activities of other religions' holidays the entire student body could be part of.

Roman Catholicism is the largest religious group on campus, according to Loyola's undergraduate admissions' latest report. The report said the 2016 first-year class identified as 60 percent Roman Catholic and 40 percent other—Jewish, Hindu, Muslim [about 800 students out of a student body of about 16,000 -EV], Protestant and Eastern Orthodox….

Sajid Ahmed, a 19-year-old Muslim student and prayer coordinator for the Muslim Student Association (MSA), said although the atmosphere of the Christmas season brings him happiness, he wishes Muslim holidays were just as prominent….

Recognizing smaller holidays like Bodhi day [a Buddhist holiday] is important to Loyola, which desires intellectual diversity, according to Shweta Singh, associate professor in the school of social work and adviser of HSO.

"People should at least know about [other holidays]," Singh said. "They're smaller festivals, but they're not small to the people celebrating them."

Singh said it's the responsibility of both student organizations representing other faiths and cultures and the university to publicly celebrate as many religious holidays on campus as possible.

Here's my thinking, as a non-Christian myself:

1. Both public universities and private universities that aspire to serious and cosmopolitan intellectual life should be treating students of minority religions equally. But it doesn't follow that they should commemorate the same way holidays that are an important part of the traditions of 90 percent of the students (both the Christians and the nonreligious who still grew up celebrating Christmas) as holidays that are important to 2 percent. A university might choose to do that for pedagogical reasons, to better acquaint students with the big world; or it might save such pedagogy for matters other than holiday decorations. No one should be entitled, though, to a particular mix of holiday celebrations. (Note that, while the establishment clause has been read as barring some religious displays by public universities, a great deal of secular traditions associated with Christmas, such as Christmas trees, lights, and the like, are permissible.)

2. But when it comes to identifiably religious universities—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or anything else—this is even more clear. Loyola keeping a Catholic identity helps promote real intellectual diversity in American public life (and, again, I'd say the same as to other religious universities; I can imagine some religious belief systems that are so pernicious that, while they must be constitutionally protected, we can still say they hurt American life more than they help it, but I think that most of the traditions that found universities do have a good deal to contribute).

I think it would be unwise, and contrary to the intellectual freedom needed for serious universities to thrive, for it to try to suppress other religious messages from students, student groups and others. It might even make sense to accommodate such other religious groups in various ways, and it sounds as though Loyola does. But when it comes to Loyola's own messages, including its holiday decor, I think it's good for Loyola to maintain a Catholic identity, and not to "celebrate" religious traditions to which it doesn't subscribe. If that would remind me, as a nonreligious person or as an ethnic Jew, that it's a university that's identifiably Catholic, and that it doesn't endorse my views (again, even though it doesn't punish me for those views)—well, I think I should have known that all along.