Is Religious Intolerance and Discrimination Becoming More Common? – JCC Critical Conversations

Is Religious Intolerance and Discrimination Becoming More Common? – JCC Critical Conversations

An article written by Center for Postsecondary Research research analyst Kevin Fosnacht and Indiana University HESA doctoral student Cindy Broderick for the Journal of College and Character, “The Role of Religion and Institution Type in Seniors’ Perceptions of the Religious and Spiritual Campus Climate” (February 2018, Vol. 19, No. 1), was featured in the Special Issue on Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities Convergence. Below, the researchers respond to a series of questions posed by JCC co-editor Jon Dalton:

Question #1 – Are incidents of religious intolerance and discrimination becoming more common on our nation’s campuses?

It is difficult to ascertain the prevalence of incidents of religious intolerance and discrimination on today’s college campuses.  At the postsecondary level, the Cleary Act has required that institutions participating in federal financial aid programs to report the number of hate crimes that occur on their campus, although these incidents are not disaggregated by the motivating factor.  In recent years, the DoEd Office of Civil Rights has started to require the reporting of bullying and harassment incidents motivated by religion at the K-12 level; although the data has not yet been released.  Consequently, the lack of data in this area makes it difficult to establish the prevalence of religious intolerance, let alone any trends. Our own data estimate that 1 in 4 students experienced religious intolerance or discrimination on their college campuses (Broderick & Fosnacht, 2017).  Additionally, news reports of incidents of religious discrimination regularly appear in the mainstream media as well as in higher education publications (Bauer-Wolf, 2017; Dreid, 2016; Flaherty, 2016).  Regardless of whether or not incidents of religious discrimination are on the rise on today’s college campuses, religion and spirituality remain an important element in fostering a positive campus climate for all members of today’s college campuses.

Question #2 – What are some of the practical ways in which “Christian privilege” manifests itself in campus settings and activities?

Christian privilege has been defined as “the conscious and unconscious advantages often afforded to the Christian faith in America’s colleges and universities” (Seifert, 2007, p. 11).  While one could argue whether or not it is in the influence of Christianity or America’s agrarian heritage that most influenced the current academic calendar, it is easy to make connections between the academic calendar and Christianity (i.e., winter break accommodates Christmas; classes do not meet on Sunday, but meet on Friday interfering with Friday prayers for Islamic students).  Christian symbols are often found throughout campus, even at public institutions, where it is not uncommon to find a chapel on campus, and even if the chapel has been converted into a non-denominational space, the architectural influence of Christianity remain obvious.  While colleges and universities continue to make strides in providing greater variety in the types of food served and in the hours of service to accommodate religious dietary needs, the basic fact that these are consciously or unconsciously considered accommodations proves the inherent Christian bias that continues to exists on today’s college campuses.  Finally, the sometimes contentious debate around school prayer almost always centers around Christian prayer.  The influence of Christian privilege on any given campus is a matter or reflection and conversation within a particular campus community, but it is an important and necessary conversation if we strive to truly foster inclusive campus communities.

Question #3 – Are students more likely to express their religious beliefs if they attend a college of the same religious affiliation as their own?

Our findings indicate that Christian students are substantially more comfortable expressing their beliefs at Christian-affiliated institutions than Christian students at non-secretarian institutions. We suspect that this would also be true for students of other religions, but our sample did not include institutions affiliated with a non-Christian religion.

We do not have a measure of the frequency of expressing religious beliefs in our data, but we believe that comfort in discussing a topic is strong proxy measure for its frequency. Therefore, our best guess is that students are more likely to discuss religion at institutions affiliated with their own religion.

Question #6 – Should colleges try to promote a campus climate that provides a comfortable “fit” for students’ religious and spiritual world views or a campus climate that challenges their beliefs and behaviors?

In many ways this is a trick question.  Should colleges try to promote a campus climate that provides a comfortable “fit” for students’ religious and spiritual worldviews?  Yes.  Should these campuses also foster campus climates that challenge students’ beliefs and behaviors?  Yes.  What we believe is most dangerous is if we bury our heads in the sand and ignore or avoid conversations related to religion and spirituality on today’s college campus.  Whether one ascribes to a particular religious ideology/faith or not, we live in a religiously pluralistic world and do our students a disservice if we do not educate them on religion/spirituality diversity.  Providing the campus community with space for the exploration of religious and spiritual identities is important.  Even if an institution ascribes to a particular religious tradition, it is important not to confuse clarity of religious identity and mission with fostering pluralistic religion/spirituality acumen.

Question #8- Are students with non-Christian world views less comfortable on campus in expressing their religious and spiritual views than Christian students?

We found that non-Christian students were substantially less comfortable expressing their religious and spiritual beliefs than Christian students. However, we also found that context matters. Non-Christian students attending religiously-affiliated institutions had equivalent levels of comfort in expressing their beliefs to the average student in our sample. Therefore, our findings indicate that religious institutions have compensatory effects in increasing religious minority students’ comfort in expressing their religious and spirituality beliefs relative to non-sectarian institutions, a finding we did not anticipate.



Bauer-Wolf, J. (June 29, 2017). The bias that a college ignores? Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from

Broderick, C.F. & Fosnacht, K. (2017). Religious intolerance on campus: A multi-institutional study.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Houston, TX, November 2017.

Dreid, N. (November 10, 2016). Muslim students are reportedly attacked on campuses in wake of election. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Flaherty, C. (November 28, 2016). Jewish professors targeted. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from

Seifert, T. (2007). Understanding Christian privilege: Managing the tensions of spiritual plurality. About Campus, 12(2), 10-17.

Cross-posted with permission from JCC‘s Blog from