Moving toward a More Inclusive Educational Environment? A Multi-Sample Exploration of Religious Discrimination as Seen through the Eyes of Students from Various Faith Traditions

Article excerpt

RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION is an issue of concern to all social workers. The United Nation's (1948/1998) Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that religious liberty is a fundamental human right and prohibits religious discrimination. These sentiments are echoed in the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (1999), which not only recognizes the existence of religious discrimination, but also stipulates that social workers have an ethical duty to identify and eliminate it in their spheres of professional influence.

The importance of this topic is underscored by recent professional interest in religion and spirituality. Although people of faith played an instrumental role in founding the profession, religious perspectives were gradually discarded and the profession soon developed a decidedly secular discourse (Amato-von Hemert, 1994). Over the past 2 decades, however, the profession has witnessed a resurgence of interest in religion and spirituality (Canda & Furman, 1999; Murdock 2004). Although this interest can be seen in a number of areas, one forum in which it is particularly noticeable is social work education. Only a handful of programs offered elective courses on spirituality and religion in 1990. By 1995, the number had risen to 17 programs, and in 2001, at least 50 programs offered courses on religion and spirituality (Miller, 2001). By 1999, more than three quarters of US News-ranked social work programs were providing at least some content on religion and spirituality in their educational programs (Kilpatrick & Puchalski, 1999).

As part of this trend, Miller (2001) reports that the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) revised its accreditation standards in 1994 to include religion in its understanding of human diversity. Drawing from the National Association of Social Workers' (NASW) code of ethics, the CSWE (2001) educational policy and accreditation standards stipulate that a foundational educational goal is to foster practice that, among other purposes and objectives, (a) is free of religious discrimination and (b) demonstrates respect, knowledge, and skills regarding clients' religious narratives (Sec. 3.0-3). In keeping with the profession's standards prohibiting religious discrimination, educational programs are also enjoined to make specific and continuous efforts to provide a learning context that fosters respect for religious diversity (Sec. 6.0).

A paucity of research, however, has examined the extent to which social work educational programs succeed in meeting these goals. The apparent expansion of the profession's discourse to include religion and spirituality can be seen as a positive development--as movement toward a more inclusive profession, It is important, however, that research be conducted to ensure that social work education is, in fact, fostering a milieu that conforms to its policy goals (CSWE, 2001; Clark, 1994).

Assessing the level of religious discrimination that exists in educational programs may serve as a proxy for measuring a basic, foundational level of compliance with CSWE educational policy objectives. It is possible to envision educational programs along a continuum, ranging from those devoid of religious discrimination to those pervaded by religious discrimination. It is difficult to imagine programs achieving the goals articulated above in an educational environment in which religious discrimination is tolerated (Manoleas, 1994). Rather, identifying discriminatory patterns by soliciting the perceptions of stakeholders, or those with a personal investment in the situation, is an instrumental step in moving toward the more positively stated CSWE policy objectives (Wambach & Van Soest, 1997). Accordingly, this study breaks new ground by exploring the extent to which religious discrimination is viewed as a problem in the eyes of respondents from various faith traditions.

At least two perspectives have appeared in the literature that provide some context for understanding and predicting perceptions of religious discrimination. …