How Public Universities Let Religious Privilege Dominate 

By Nicole Chebili

I began life as a college student in the peak of the pandemic. While excited to join the student body University of Virginia, I quickly noticed a culture of religious privilege that placed more value on the opportunities and rights of theists.

During the pandemic, activities and student life were halted. Clubs met virtually, sports were paused, and all social gatherings cancelled – unless they were religious in nature. The University and local government were more than happy to grant exemptions to religious clubs, ceremonies, weddings, and services.

For example, I lived in student housing last year directly next to a common-use building that accommodates all types of events. However, the only events allowed to be held there at the height of the pandemic were religious ones. These services far exceeded the gathering sizes for secular groups of students and townspeople, and even went against CDC guidelines at the time.

The message was clear: beliefs of a few trump the public health of the whole. What was the point of careful physical distancing, masking up, and a virtual college experience if we were going to ignore these same health standards for people who had certain supernatural beliefs? It was devastating to see my University risking lives for services that could have easily operated online. Now more than ever, it is important to make sure that all members of a community are valued, not just the religious.

Discrimination by religious groups is also rampant at the University. It pervades clubs, athletics, and student culture. For example, multiple members of the largest Christian group on campus, Chi Alpha, reported being discriminated against and demoted from leadership positions for being LGBTQ+. Additionally, some organizations affiliated with U.Va. have national policies barring LGBTQ+ people from employment and student leadership positions in the organization. When it comes to religion, the University’s discrimination clause gets thrown out of the window and LGBTQ+ students are left funding their own discrimination. 

And while religious privilege is ingrained in official school policies and entities, it extends into student culture as well. There is an unspoken rule about keeping quiet about your nontheism among others, due to the strong Christian culture at the University. I have even been unfairly ridiculed for wanting to start a secular group on our campus. 

However, religiously privileged policies extend beyond higher education. The Supreme Court recently granted Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia the ability to discriminate against potential foster and adoptive parents that do not meet their religious criteria. This opens the door for discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and even those who are non-Catholic. 

As a public university, U.Va. has more of a responsibility and capability to uphold the separation of church and state and provide a secular and equal opportunity environment for all students. Following the Supreme Court decision of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the University has the ability to force clubs to comply with their non-discrimination clause – administrators simply choose not to enforce it.

Enabling this type of behavior gives a clear message: there will be no accountability when the basis for wrongdoing is religious. Spending this summer as an Advocacy Fellow at the Secular Coalition for America has given me a new perspective on how we can combat religious privilege and make sure all people are valued regardless of their beliefs. I have already started the process of reviving a secular group on my campus, which will hopefully bring attention to the fact that nonreligious students exist and should not be valued less than religious ones. It is time to change existing precedent and apply pressure to those in power in public universities. 

Nicole Chebili is a Summer 2021 Advocacy Fellow for the Secular Coalition for America. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of the Secular Coalition for America.

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