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Sonoma State University Incident Serves as Reminder of Freedom to Display Faith (Or Lack Thereof)

Aaron Coven is a FIRE summer intern. While some may find it hard to believe, religious discrimination still occurs on our nation’s college and university campuses. Just last week, Audrey Jarvis, a 19-year-old Sonoma State University student, was first instructed by a university employee to remove, and later told to hide, a two-inch cross from her neck so as not to offend other students. Within only a short matter of time, however, the university apologized, and has acted to rectify the situation. Jarvis, who was working at a freshman orientation event when the incident occurred, stated in an interview: “I believe … it is my prerogative to display my faith any way I like so long as it is not harming anyone else. I … felt as if the university’s mission statement — which includes tolerance and inclusivity to all — was violated.” Jarvis is being represented by the Liberty Institute, a Christian-oriented group, and her lawyer, Hiram Sasser, noted the following: “It’s amazing in this day of diversity and tolerance on university campuses that a university official would engage in this type of obvious religious discrimination.” Sasser also said that “state employees may wear crosses while they are performing their duties as long as the wearing does not interfere with the employees’ duties or harm the employer’s business interests.” Sonoma State spokeswoman Susan Kashack later responded to the incident, and acknowledged that the university employee was fully at fault: “It was absolutely an inappropriate action for him to make that request of her. ... The [university] president was very upset about it and asked me to contact Miss Jarvis and give a profuse apology.” Although some may believe this incident is only of concern to Christians, it is important to note that it is necessarily of interest to students and professors of all faiths and even to those who do not practice religion at all. This time a Christian student was targeted for wearing a cross, but next time, a student or professor of another faith could be targeted for wearing their own religious garb. This time a religious student was discriminated against for displaying faith, but next time, an atheist student or professor could be on the receiving end of such an attack for their refusal to display faith or adherence to some other belief. While Jarvis’ case, fortunately, was resolved quickly, it serves as an important reminder that First Amendment rights cannot be taken for granted on college and university campuses. Sonoma State should be commended for quickly acting to discuss the incident with the unnamed official who had ordered Jarvis to remove her cross and for apologizing for the official’s behavior. Let’s hope its response serves as an example for other colleges and universities who find themselves in similar situations.

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