Students say Baylor’s journey toward religious inclusivity isn’t anywhere near ending

An increase in religious diversity among Baylor students has led to a demand for non-Christian groups to be chartered on campus. Photo courtesy of the Baylor Photography Database

By Clara Snyder | Staff Writer

While pursuing higher education and preparing to enter a world complicated with insurmountable division, some students said there is a need for greater religious inclusivity on Baylor’s campus.

During the 2006-2007 school year, the university’s journey toward religious inclusivity began with an outcry from over 100 groups seeking freedom to practice their faith on campus. The Student Senate heard and addressed this concern in February 2007 by proposing a controversial bill asking the Baylor Board of Regents to allow for the chartering of non-Baptist Christian student groups; the bill went into effect in fall 2008 under specific guidelines.

Ten years later, religious inclusivity was brought back to the Board of Regents’ attention with a new bill addressing religions outside of the university’s Statement of Common Faith. According to a Lariat Letter by Bradlee Hall in 2018, this Student Senate bill was met with a different fate.

“The Senate meeting came to order, ominously enough, with so many observers present that standing room only was available to guests,” Hall said. “Under the cover of anonymity, attendees were asked if they owned a Bible to acquire the number of Bibles to be purchased and distributed to those who answered in the negative. All attendees were profiled regarding their religious persuasions before the meeting even began.”

Despite the efforts of some senators in favor of the bill during the meeting, according to Hall, a senator in attendance said that students who do not attend the university on religious grounds should have chosen another establishment.

“Nearly half of the senators voted against even the most modest accommodations for religious minorities, and in so doing exposed a dark side of the oftentimes insular community that is Baylor,” Hall said.

Three years after this meeting, the university’s guidelines for religious diversity remain untouched.

Dr. Elise Edwards, assistant professor of religion, said religious diversity, when done respectfully, allows students to practice open-mindedness while solidifying their own beliefs. Almost all religious traditions have some conception of what it means to be a good person, and religious diversity helps students see that overlap in humanity, Edwards said.

“Sometimes, we have an idea that our religious tradition is the best, but it’s not, because we’ve talked to people who are of other religious traditions,” Edwards said. “[Students] don’t know enough about the other religious traditions to really understand how other religions do try to teach people to be good people.”

According to Edwards, religious diversity can sometimes be perceived as a threat. Edwards said because many Christian backgrounds teach believers to evangelize, some people fear that individuals from other religious traditions will try to do the same thing to them.

“We can learn about religions from the people who practice them and see them as faithful people as well without necessarily knocking their beliefs,” Edwards said. “Sometimes, I think we are afraid of learning about other religions and traditions because we think we’re being unfaithful to our own traditions, but we don’t have to become something to learn about it.”

Houston junior Mariam Eid and Fort Worth junior Nelley Sobh — members of the Middle Eastern Student Association — said they don’t think the issue at present lies within religious acceptance from peers on campus.

“A lot of the people I speak to about my religion are very receptive to what I’m saying and want to learn more,” Eid said. “Its just that they’re not really educated on other religions and they’re not exposed to diversity in regard to religious beliefs.”

“[Religious diversity] bills would get passed through student government because they want their fellow students to feel welcomed at Baylor … but Baylor holds up too many stop signs for us to go through,” Sobh said.

Sobh said the only avenue where non-Christian individuals get representation at Baylor is Better Together. According to Sobh, the only reason why an avenue such as Better Together can exist on campus is because of the faculty’s support and interest in the well-being of their students.

“The issue is there is no other way for non-Christian individuals to feel that representation, so that small reflection of the faculty’s interest in our well-being is shown through this small avenue,” Sobh said. “Baylor is a difficult place for religious minorities.”

Eid said just as Baylor emphasizes diversity, equity and inclusion, it should emphasize the religions that compose its campus as well. Sobh said she believes there is a way to do this while maintaining the integrity of a Christian university.

“In order to preach that Christian doctrine, you need to be able to provide respect and show people that you’re willing to approach them with an open mind and heart,” Sobh said. “A lot of us come here acknowledging and respecting that this is a Christian institution, but we also wish that they advertised to these minorities that we’re able to come and feel at home here.”

According to Sobh, college is supposed to prepare students for the real world, where they will be surrounded by individuals from a multitude of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Sobh said Baylor dilutes a college student’s educational opportunities by not providing students with varying cultural and religious experiences.

“The fact that they teach Islamic courses on campus but they’re not allowed to be taught by Islamic professors, the fact that they teach a lot of Middle Eastern courses on campus but a lot of those courses are not taught by Middle Eastern individuals — by not allowing people who reside within that group to teach the courses they provide, they dilute a Baylor student’s quality of education,” Sobh said.

Tomball sophomore Issa Abusada — member of the Middle Eastern Student Association — said it’s detrimental to have people from different backgrounds in the same environment without the freedom to represent their individual convictions. According to Abusada, being in an environment confined to a singular way of thinking is dangerous because it can breed the mentality of always being right.

“Throughout life, you’re not going to only meet Christians or people from the same religion that you are,” Abusada said. “America is a free country, so why can’t Baylor be a free university?”

Eid said controlling who can have religious expression on campus further immerses the student body in the “Baylor bubble.” According to Eid, embracing the religions that compose our student body can plant a seed of empathy and sympathy on campus.

“Most of the religions that Baylor students practice are rooted in community and peace, so not sharing or emphasizing that defeats the purpose of promoting a diverse campus,” Eid said.

Sobh said the goal of allowing greater religious expression on campus is not to take away from the doctrine the university upholds, but rather to respect Baylor’s beliefs while fostering that same respect for other present beliefs.

“None of us have any interest in going ahead and having Baylor change its foundation,” Sobh said. “We, as human beings, just want to be respected for our philosophies and religions.”

Plano sophomore Dany Demashkiah — member of the Middle Eastern Student Association — said the Middle Eastern Student Association isn’t affiliated with one specific religion because its goal is to create a safe place that embraces unity and allows individuals to learn more about diversity.

“At the end of the day, this world sees so much division and exclusivity, and what we want from this organization is for us to be able to come together and celebrate our similarities and differences,” Sobh said.

If you are interested in becoming more educated about the various religions of students at Baylor, see resources for religiously diverse students. There will also be an interest meeting for the Middle Eastern Student Association on April 28 (information to come via Instagram).