Do Prayer Spaces Belong on Secular University Campuses?


If so, what should they look like (ie. should they be multifaith or for an individual faith)? And who should pay for them? And what rights issues might be violated by providing them?

If not, why not? What should the religious do if they find they must pray while on campus? And what rights might be violated by not providing them?

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21 responses to “Do Prayer Spaces Belong on Secular University Campuses?

  • L Alan Weiss

    The question is more about freedom in public spaces as well as public institutions. Even if there is supposed to be a separation between church and state, the question of personal freedom arises. Should people be allowed to say grace over a meal served at a restaurant. While I personally find public expressions of reliosity repugnant, the grace sayers are not limiting my restaurant experience re food and service. Perhaps prayer permissible tables should be designated so people like me could request a seat in another part of the restaurant (just musing here).

    Prayer spaces might be provided as long as they cost the public institution nothing and the space and activity in that space affect nor comprise the educational experience of others.

    That being said, God and the belief in same is a private matter, and should be kept that way.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Well I don’t agree with the last point because many fundamentalists will never agree, and I think all things ought to be discussed openly, and critically (although correct timing and understanding your audience is still important).

      Generally these thing tend to have clauses that float along the line of “…such person or organization must accommodate until such time that it lead to an undue burden…” And from there the rest is for the legal system and politics.

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      • L Alan Weiss

        I certainly agree with the point you make re: free and open discussions, but there are appropriate tomes and places for those discussions. When I say “personal and private” I mean that the last thing I want to hear when I am relaxing on vacation in Mexico, is a Texas radio evangelist engaged in a discussion about Grace in his loud evangelical voice. Nor do I want to hear a pastor expounding on what Jesus expects of people entering into a marriage when I’m eating lunch with my wife in a restaurant. Both of these situations are examples of God Pollution or Public Jesus Talk. Those conversations don’t belong in public places.

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  • Ros

    I’ve been thinking on this overnight before replying because it occurred to me that the question is more complex than perhaps it appears.

    I can’t see that having a prayer space is likely to violate anyone’s rights as long as it is open to everyone to use. It’s when it is not, that it is more likely to become a problem. Because of this, it makes sense to me for said space to be a multifaith space. As soon as it becomes specific to a particular religion, group or denomination, then those of that religion, group or denomination are going to want to take ownership of it – with possible inflammatory results. (I was picturing a strongly evangelical Christian group deciding whether they were going to allow a Sufi group to pray in “their” space. Not likely to go well, in my experience…)

    It seems to me that a multifaith ‘quiet’ space has the potential to be used by those of all faiths and none. It could be a place where those recently bereaved or facing some other challenge could take some ‘time out’, regardless of what conclusions they came to about life or death. It could be a place where students with sensory processing issues (e.g. those with ASD) might also find solace. In fact, there are all sorts of good reasons for having such a space, both for those who are religious and those who aren’t.

    Any such space would need to be sensitively decorated and have rules around what was acceptable at certain times (e.g. whether prayers could be vocalised or whether silence should be maintained) and it might need different spaces within it to accommodate those different needs. It could also be staffed by a team of chaplains, including a humanist one, in much the same way as a hospital or crematorium provides for differing needs. However, I think it should be open to all as a free space for more time than it is available to be reserved by specific groups, because I think it would be likely to benefit more students that way. It’s also going to be a major positive when it comes to finding the funding.

    If students really want a building that is specific to their religion or denomination and not open to others, then I think it’s reasonable to expect them to look for that off campus unless they are willing to pay for it (including staffing and maintenance) themselves.

    Meanwhile, if students are prevented from praying in public because others find it offensive, yet no space is provided in which they can pray, then I would consider that to be a violation of their rights. Muslims, in particular, are required to pray regularly throughout the day and I would consider it unreasonable to expect them to be off campus every time they needed to do this.

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  • paidiske

    I have a soft spot for prayer spaces on campus; it was in one of those that I experienced my vocation to ministry (a pivotal moment which has shaped all of my life since)! And when I studied on that campus, I prayed in that space just about every day. So I have a definite bias.

    That said, I can’t imagine that any rights are violated by providing such spaces, but perhaps rights are violated – or at least impinged on – by not providing them. I have heard of difficulties in some places here with Muslims trying to pray in crowded hallways because there were insufficient appropriate spaces for their needs (for example).

    Bear in mind, too, that many people live on campus; it’s not just a place they visit to study, but the context in which they live their daily lives. In that sense, accommodating religious practice takes on greater importance.

    As to what they should look like – I really love the model of the first university I was at. It was round, and had a large central room which anyone could use (but it needed to be booked). Then off a corridor around that were smaller faith-specific spaces (so a Christian chapel, Buddhist meditation room, Muslim prayer rooms, and so on). This meant that those who wanted a more – for want of a better word – customised space could have it, but large gatherings were also possible in a multi-faith space. It seemed to work.

    Who should pay? Who pays for any university facilities? I imagine it is a combination of student fees and government grants? That sounds about right to me.

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    • clubschadenfreude

      Why do people need special places to pray?

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      • paidiske

        For a number of reasons, I guess. To allow for prayer to be undisturbed/uninterrupted by other activities going on in the same space; to allow for some practices (for example, communal singing) not to disturb others around them; to provide for particular devotional activities (eg. lighting candles, ablutions, use of incense etc).

        For me, I tended to pray on campus because I had no privacy or quiet time at home; whereas in the chapel I would not be interrupted or intruded upon.

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        • clubschadenfreude

          Most colleges and universities I know of are in towns/cities. In my small city of Harrisburg, PA, there are at least 10 pages of churches in the yellow pages in small font. When walking three miles from uptown to downtown, I pass no fewer than twenty churches within a block or so of my route. Can they not go to those places? incidentally, we have no major university in the city.

          This is why I find any claim of Christianity or any religion to be some major unified entity to be false since believers are very insular and only want a building of their particular brand of belief to pray in.

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          • paidiske

            Maybe they could – if the church kept its doors open. As an undergrad, I often had difficulty getting to services as I needed to work on Sunday mornings to pay my rent and still attend classes. So the chapel on campus became my prayer space because I could go between classes and the doors would actually be open and I could go in, unlike most churches which lock their doors outside service times for security reasons.

            And what you describe is true, for Christianity; much harder to find such a concentration of synagogues or mosques or temples, but students of other faiths still need to pray.

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          • clubschadenfreude

            That does bring up an interesting problem. Why do churches close their doors if their god is omnipotent and claimed to be concerned with humans and their items as claimants for prayer claim?

            In that Christianity claims that there is only one god to be worshipped and, according to many Christians in only a certain way, I do applaud that you would be concerned for people of other faiths.

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  • Mallee Stanley

    There are such places if faiths request it on Canadian campuses

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Not on all campuses. McGill has recently been dealing with some controversy surrounding this issue. So has another campus (I believe Toronto, but I’m not sure). Every province is able to interpret the Rights and Freedom’s Act for themselves, so different universities apply it differently.

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  • caelesti

    I would call it a “contemplation” space or something to be more neutral. Many atheists/agnostics practice meditation, yoga etc. It would be best if different groups could reserve it, bring in equipment they might need, as well as just open time for individuals to use it. A lot of universities have fraternities or other organizations that are big enough to own buildings if a group wants a separate space. Even schools that have a Christian affiliation have sometimes changed the name of “Campus Ministry” to something broader- for example, the Methodist affiliated Hamline University near me has the Wesley Center for Spirituality, Service & Social Justice, for example.

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  • Do Prayer Spaces Belong on Secular University Campuses? | Christians Anonymous

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  • nancyabramsblogger

    I personally think the way my school handles it is reasonable when it comes to inclusiveness and accommodations, though I don’t know how they actually fund what they have. I go to a small private university with no religious affiliation. We have a “sacred space” that’s designed to be used by any religion. It has Muslim foot washing stations, generic (geometric shapes with no pictures of people on them) stained glass windows, and the chairs are movable to allow for different types of religious practice. One of my professors is Buddhist and leads meditation in that room, the Catholic club also uses it for mass, and it’s been used by other denominations as well. To my knowledge there is no humanist organization, but we’d be free to form one as well if there were enough of us (7 people or more can make a club.) Basically, where I go, you can practice most religions if you’re interested. It’s a pretty diverse campus. But it’s still religiously unaffiliated, so no religion will ever be forced on you. It’s just another available service that you can choose to use or not use, like the gym.

    That’s what works for my school though, and it’s pretty small. I think whether or not prayer space or spaces on a campus are specific to a religion should depend on the needs of the campus. A larger campus might need a separate space for each of the main religions because of the sheer number of students trying to visit it at once and book times for worship. I don’t think there’s really a one size fits all solution for all campuses since they vary a lot just by size (and by culture). On another campus, maybe there need to be several prayer spaces, but none of them should be for a specific religion, because the student population is not diverse enough that for example a Jewish-only prayer space would even be visited.

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  • thecaveatlector

    Interesting questions.

    I agree with mindfulaide. Speaking as someone who works for a university in the United States, many institutional missions have language around personal growth and development that implicitly or explicitly includes religious or spiritual growth. At the very least, they will generally include language around creating an environment where students can learn and explore ideas. Coupled with a commitment to diversity, this is a compelling institutional reason to provide services/accommodations to students with specific religious needs (e.g., prayer space, kosher food options).

    Regarding funding, secularism is not anti-religious. Values like having an environment conducive to learning and having a commitment to diversity are secular. When the public is taxed to fund a university, the money is going toward the fulfillment of the university’s mission. However, enacting the values within a university’s mission has an impact on the religious lives of citizens and students attending or working at public and secular universities. As a result, there may be compelling secular reason to dedicate funds toward otherwise religious activities/needs (e.g., a dedicated prayer space, kosher foodstuffs).

    Regarding the violation of rights, I do not know enough about the legal standing of such issues in neither the United States nor Canada, so I cannot speak with certainty. However, I would think that there is no violation of rights whether or not a dedicated prayer space is provided.

    What such accommodations should look like is difficult to say, as it will likely change based around budgetary constraints, available infrastructure, and student population. It is something that must necessarily be considered on a case-by-case basis.

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  • Ron

    Let them pray in a protective space. That way, they can keep from bothering the larger community with it.

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  • mindfulaide

    Yes. Prayer spaces belong on secular university campuses.

    Religious beliefs are protected in Canada as a Fundamental Freedom in section 2(i) “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of conscience and religion;” and section (iii) “freedom of peaceful assembly”. I am sure that this is the case in the USA as well, since the USA was founded primarily by people from traditions that were suppressed in Europe.

    People wanting to meet and pray is a right, and should be respected by everyone, even atheists.

    I see the question on the same lines as “Should the disabled receive accommodations at a university were the majority are able-bodied?” Yes. Everyone has a right to access and participate, no matter what their abilities.

    Providing a space for prayer assemblies is important for the same reasons: some religions require regular practice. This includes my own Bön Buddhist tradition. I could easily find another space to pray during school hours, but it is easier if the university population respectfully accommodates my needs. Because it is my right as a Canadian to pray, and to assemble with others for any reason if it be peaceful, there is no reason not to provide the space.

    Should people that don’t believe in God pay for it? Trickier question. As a student you generally have the ability to opt out, or request a return of funds for student associations, and facilities (i.e., gyms, prayer spaces, etc), you do not use/agree with. If you find that your funds are going towards something you don’t want them to you can always make that request. Usually, however, prayer spaces are not paid for by student tuition fees, they are paid for out of donations to the institution.

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  • mdarst95

    I am a firm believer in the kind of “do what ever you want” mentality so I feel that everyone has a right to pray (or not pray) to whatever God, Gods, or Goddesses they choose. That being said, if a certain denomination is paying for a prayer space, they have the right to determine what it looks like and what kind of prayer takes place; but each denomination should have the same rights to build a space on campus or none of them should. It can’t be like “hey let’s give Buddhists a prayer space but not Christians.” I think that’s when people get offended.

    Plus we have to consider that everyone has the right to worship in their own living space and to invite people into said living space to gather and worship if they so choose.

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  • Jaz

    Universities are attended by people of many different beliefs and faiths. If you are to believe in a multicultural society, then that is to believe that many different cultures can live side by side in the same society in peace.

    I reckon there would be a violation of rights if they weren’t provided for.

    Sure, not everyone uses the women’s bathroom because not everyone is a woman, but it would be a violation of their right to relieve themselves with dignity. Of course, this allusion is kind of extreme in the sense that everyone believes that bathrooms are necessary, while it can be argued that prayer rooms aren’t. But, still. A safe space should be provided where worshipers could pray without fear of being judged. Isn’t that the wish of many people?

    I personally am okay with a multi-faith space. But many people could find it more helpful or comfortable in a separate place where they can confidently approach someone they know is of the same faith and talk/get advice/etc. Also, though I am not too sure on certain aspects, I know people like to worship at alters, and it would be disrespectful for everyone involved if you were to find yourself praying at an alter that hasn’t been dedicated to the god(s) of your faith.

    A prayer space dedicated to certain faiths could also allow people to explore whichever faith they are interested in.

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