Whitman moves toward compliance with Washington State religious observance law

Kasey Moulton, Podcast Editor

Whitman continues to contend with its history as an institution founded by missionaries over a century after it abandoned its religious affiliation, but that contention does not exempt the College from state or federal statutes requiring professors to accommodate student absences for religious reasons.  

Senate Bill 5166, now RCW 28B.137.010, requires postsecondary institutions to “develop policies to accommodate student absences to allow students to take holidays for reasons of faith” and “provide notice to students of its policy by publishing the policy on the institution’s web site and including either the policy or a link to the policy in course or program syllabi,” among other reasonable accommodations.  

Interfaith Chaplain Adam Kirtley has been involved with the specifics of Whitman’s Religious Observance Policy since he participated in its development during his early years at the College.  The policy as it is today isn’t what he initially envisioned.

“The second sentence of [Whitman’s policy]  says we don’t have a formal policy… it’s a very soft recommendation to faculty that they accommodate student needs,” Kirtley said.  

One student, who wishes to remain anonymous, came across the law and was puzzled by a lack of movement from the College to come into compliance.  

The student described the current situation as complicated: “The way it is now, students go on the website and see no easy form. You have to schedule these days before the semester even begins—the responsibility is entirely on students. The professor reserves every right to say no. [There’s] no process on the website for filing any kind of complaint other than saying you can. There’s no formal process—absolutely no formal process on this,” they said. 

Revising policy is outside of his regular duties, but Kirtley does stay attuned to legislation that could impact the campus’s religious population, and alerted administration to the passage of SB 5166 in 2019 and again brought it to their attention at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.  

“Whitman is out of compliance currently, is my assumption,” Kirtley said. SB 5166 went into effect as of July 28, 2019, and no grace or transition period was included in the legislation. The exact consequences of being out of compliance are unclear—the bill does not include any specifics surrounding ramifications for a breach of policy.

Different professors have very different policies and levels of accommodation when it comes to absences for religious purposes. Kirtley has found most faculty to be accommodating to students seeking excused absences or alternate test dates. The anonymous student is less optimistic, and has heard of faculty not respecting students’ religious beliefs.  

Although individual experiences differ, there are practices in place to encourage accommodation.

At the beginning of each year, the Provost/Dean of Faculty (PDF) sends out a message … asking faculty to accommodate student requests for religious observance. My impression is that the religious accommodation language that exists on the Spiritual Life webpage …  has not been heavily referenced by the college in recent years, and that the language from the PDF strongly encourages these accommodations,” Kirtley wrote in an email to The Wire

Conversations surrounding the creation of a formal religious observance policy are in early stages, Alzada Tipton, Provost and Dean of the Faculty, shared in an email to The Wire. Tipton said there is “not a lot to report” at this time, as the process is just getting started, more than two years after the law was initially passed. Kirtley, however, is under the impression that changes, especially to course syllabi, might be coming as soon as the spring semester. 

“The College is on the cusp of making the correction,” Kirtley wrote in an email to The Wire.