While Queen’s was founded by pious Scottish Presbyterians, students with religious beliefs today are in a firm minority.
But a Christian background does mean the University is designed with Christian students in mind — particularly through its adherence to the Christian calendar.
“Even if they are culturally Christian, they’re at an advantage over students who are of other faiths and backgrounds,” University Chaplain Kate Johnson said, noting that students of different religious backgrounds may have holidays that conflict with exams and assignments.
Queen’s offers religious accommodations for students who aren’t of a Christian background. Accommodations include rescheduling exams and presentations that fall on religious holidays, providing specialized food options and adding prayer spaces to campus.
The office of the chaplain currently funds a Sunni Imam and a Christian pastor, and Johnson said she’s negotiating to have a transgender pastor come to Queen’s to work starting next September.
The Journal sat down with Johnson and three students involved in religious communities at Queen’s this week to discuss religious accommodations and the role religion plays in their lives.
Masfa Tariq, ArtSci ’15, is a Muslim student. Dukesika Chandrakumar, Nurs ’16, is the president of the Hindu Students Association, while Hayley Lipworth, ConEd ’16, is a vice-president of Queen’s Hillel, a Jewish student club.
Their roles on campus
Johnson: People look to me as the religious authority on campus. When there is a request for accommodation, it comes to this office. Then I do the research to confirm or deny it.
Tariq: I’m not involved in the [Queen’s University Muslim Student Association] executive, but I am a Muslim and I do practice and use all the facilities.
Lipworth: I’m the vice president (internal) of Queen’s Hillel. I mostly look over the social committee, so that’s social events for Jewish and non-Jewish students, as well as the Shabat dinners.
Chandrakumar: I’m in Nursing and there’s only me and someone else who’s Hindu. That’s why I joined the Hindu Students Association, because I wanted to see how many other students were Hindu.
On spaces and resources for religious students
Johnson: I’m a resource. I’m the main resource that the University funds, as well as the Human Rights Office. Most of the sacred space on campus has been shut down or made unavailable, and I’m in the process of trying to change that.
This afternoon, I’m taking some prayer mats to the prayer room in Stauffer Library that we’re opening up. There’s a similar process happening on West Campus, and there’s a room in Goodes Hall.
Tariq: There’s space on the third floor of the JDUC for prayer.
Lipworth: On campus, Queen’s Hillel is an AMS-ratified club.
We have club space, so that’s helpful. We also have a Hillel House off-campus. It’s a place where we have Shabat dinner and social gatherings. There’s also a synagogue off-campus.
Chandrakumar: For our group, the Hindu Students Association, we provide a space for prayer and meditation. We have the Satsang [event], which [is] basically a prayer at the beginning and then a discussion about Hinduism.
On the religious accommodations offered by Queen’s
Johnson: It’s primarily around exam timing. If a student has an assignment that is due or an exam that conflicts with a religious obligation, they can speak to their professor and the Exams Office to have that moved. That’s the biggest accommodation.
People are given time to pray if their religion requires that. The most obvious one there is that Muslims have this obligation to pray five times a day in certain windows.
Tariq: [Muslim students] actually told me all the positive things Queen’s has done. [One student] said he really appreciates how Queen’s has given a prayer space … someone else said they appreciate how exams can be accommodated at different times due to prayer.
If I’ve ever emailed a prof, they said “that’s OK, we’ll schedule a different time”. As long as I’ve been here, there’s been no one who has said anything against Queen’s.
Lipworth: The school has been very accommodating for Jewish holidays. A lot of Jewish holidays fall on exams, or on midterms. Especially the beginning of the year — September is the high time for Jewish holidays. You have Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah.
When I was in first year, I had to be vegetarian. I ordered kosher food a few times, and it wasn’t the quality I was expected for a dinner. It was more like airplane food.
Chandrakumar: If a student had a religious holiday, I feel the University should be able to accommodate this. For example, Diwali is a big Hindu holiday, which often falls in October or November, and this is a time when midterms occur … I found many students are torn between celebrating their religious holiday and studying for exams.
On where the obligation to accommodate ends
Johnson: In Canada, we have a duty to accommodate unless it involves undue hardship. People have different understandings of what undue hardship represents.
Here’s an easy one: Passover for Jewish students frequently conflicts with exam schedules. There are four days during Passover where Jewish students are absolutely forbidden from working. If they have an exam scheduled on those four days, they’re granted an opportunity to move that exam.
However, there’s nothing in religious law that says they have to spend the holiday with their family. So it’s a bit sad, but the University is under no obligation to allow them travel time so they can be with their family during Passover.
Tariq: For the University, it becomes really hard to accommodate all of the religious holidays. I do think the University has a right to say, “No, we can’t do that” … But I feel like when someone is uncomfortable with something, I feel the University has an obligation to step in.
Lipworth: Passover is eight days, but there are four days when you are obligated to not use electricity. Jewish holidays start at sundown. Being able to get home in time, in my opinion, is one of the most important parts.
Say you live in Toronto and you need to drive there and be with your family before sundown — you’ll be rushing to get there before sundown when you won’t be able to use electronics.
I would draw the line between reasonable religious observance and spending time with your family when you really can be at school doing work.
On the perception of Islam as a religion that’s difficult to reconcile with a secular society
Johnson: It’s an unfair characterization. There are many Christian students who hold values that are incompatible, but they are not as visible. Women wearing hijabs become instantly visible. [As for] the obligation to pray five times a day, most Christians do the same … but because Islam does it in particular windows of time, that makes them stick out more.
And then there’s the whole culture of Islamophobia. I don’t think there’s anything special about Islam. I think there’s something special about the way the general public thinks about Islam.
Tariq: I don’t think there is unfairness. I have no complaints about this country. I’ve never felt I’ve been targeted. I used to live in the United States, and there’s a huge difference between the way I was treated there and the way I’m treated here.
Chandrakumar: It would mostly be because of the media. The media focuses on Islam, and that’s why it is talked about. We don’t see news stories on Hinduism and its impact, but we do see many stories, and many extreme stories, about Islam.
On the role of religion in their lives
Johnson: I belong to the Quaker tradition. We’re non-creedal. We don’t think we have a monopoly on God. God’s big enough to speak to people in a way that they can hear God.
Whether you call it God, or my highest self, it doesn’t matter what word you use. It’s love, and it’s important for me to act with love.
Tariq: It’s been my way of life, from how I eat to how I greet people. I don’t go to prayer and then party afterwards. That’s contradictory to me.
It’s what you believe in and not what you show. Someone can wear the hijab but not believe it.
Lipworth: I grew up in a traditionally Jewish home. We had our traditional Friday night dinners. We don’t eat pork, we don’t eat shrimp and lobster, we don’t eat meat and milk together. As I’ve learned more, I’ve actually accepted [those rules] more as animal rights more than anything else.
To me, it’s my family. It’s my community. It’s my support system and my friends. It’s a whole life thing.
Chandrakumar: I’m not religious, in that I don’t practice all of the religious rules. Being Hindu for me is being a good person, and doing good. I’m not a vegetarian. I eat meat … but the main thing is to do good, and that’s the role it plays in my life.
These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
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