A report released in 2004 advised the University to increase its focus on multifaith initiatives and provide more space and support for campus religious groups. Since the report, the University has already taken some laudable steps to fulfill those recommendations, most notably by providing appropriate dining arrangements for Muslim students during Ramadan.
And now, with the news that the community-service organization Dwight Hall will be moving to Elm Street, likely ceding its Old Campus building to the Chaplain’s Office, the University seems poised to fulfill the committee’s recommendation of providing more meeting space for the diversity of our campus’s religious groups. The chaplain’s current space — next to a laundry room in Bingham’s basement — is insufficient. But the likely decision to move the Chaplain’s Office into the Dwight Hall building, right in the heart of Old Campus, seems to us to risk crossing the line between accommodation of religious needs and promotion of religion.
One of the most common arguments against relocating Dwight Hall to Elm Street is that removing the community-service organization from the center of campus would decrease its visibility to freshman residents of Old Campus as well as the thousands of others — from tour groups to students with classes in LC or Street Hall — who pass by the building daily. The flip side of that argument is that the Chaplain’s Office now stands to gain significantly more prominence on campus because of its new home in Dwight Hall, to be renamed Dwight Chapel. Between Battell Chapel, which is a nondenominational Christian church, and Dwight Chapel, Old Campus would be bracketed by religious spaces.
Currently at Yale, students’ religious needs are met by an array of institutional and extracurricular groups: the Slifka and St. Thomas More centers, the Muslim Students Association, Yale Students for Christ, the list could go on. The strength of these groups’ membership rolls indicates how Yalies for whom faith is important will participate in religious opportunities when available and found them when they are not. The move to Dwight Hall will help the Chaplain’s Office better serve those populations whose denominations do not currently have a strong on-campus presence, but the role of the Chaplain’s Office, a part of the Yale administration, should be just to facilitate students’ religious observance, not to encourage students to become more religious.
The soon to be former occupant of that space took advantage of the location to make community service an integral part of the Yale experience; the new occupant will not, we hope, approach its position on Old Campus in the same way. Yes, Dwight Chapel is a logical spot for the office — it is already, after all, a chapel — but before final decisions on how the Chaplain’s office will use the building, the office should make sure that it strikes a balance between responding to the demands of students and too actively promoting its work.