The clear sense these rules convey is that the instructor is expected to bend their rules if they might create difficulty or hardship for someone who wishes to respect a religious obligation but that a student who is going to be absent for some other extra-curricular activity undertakes a greater obligation if they want to miss class. Now one might justify such a policy on the grounds that some athletes or musicians are going to be out of town on a large number of dates or that religion is more important to people. However, it would be easy to give every student a certain number of absences they can exercise using the easier standard and there are many students who are more casual about the religious observances they ask to be excused for then athletes are about their games...
The things that we [non-believers] may really really care about get no accommodation while just someone has a ridiculous belief about some historical event we have to bend over to accommodate them. Now I fully understand that the potential for religious discrimination is great but if we weren’t implicitly endorsing religion as something more important than say a rocketry hobby we would use some fully neutral policy that gave everyone the chance to do what they really cared about.
That seems exactly right to me. For a more controversial example, then, consider the view that we ("society", i.e. employers and institutions) ought to make a special effort to accommodate those who choose to raise children. I'm sympathetic to this view. But is it biased? Why is the choice to raise children more worthy of accommodation than the choice to write a novel or compose a symphony in one's spare time? Perhaps we ought to be more accommodating in general, not singling out 'family support' as a uniquely worthy form of support. Fairer, perhaps, to enable individuals to pursue whatever projects are most important to them -- and for many this will happen to be childrearing, but for others it may not.
What is the best argument for singling out childcare? (I would look for consequentialist considerations, e.g. the impact that parenting has on the next generation. But let's bracket that for now.) Feminists sometimes claim that lack of support for women who want to both work and raise children is sexist. But it isn't entirely clear why this is so. (We can't always get everything we want. That's an annoying fact of life, not necessarily a sign of oppression.) Back to II:
The arguments given about the problems for women with babies in academia all focused on the extra time and energy women put into childcare. Now if women put more effort into children simply because they find raising children more rewarding (relative to men) the fact more women than men drop out to raise children is actually the desired outcome. It’s what would result from perfectly fair mutually beneficial trades. On the other hand if you think that the extra effort women put into childrearing isn’t the result of fair deals then the target should be on encouraging women to put less effort into childrearing, not making the unfair division of labor slightly less bad for women.
And a thought-provoking analogy:
Men are underrepresented in K-12 teaching. The reason most men abandon teaching is the difficulty of taking a high paying job in business and being a teacher. Therefore we should provide special benefits and accommodations to let men teach while still working as businessmen in the day. Obviously this argument is fallacious. If people are leaving some profession because they’ve found a better offer they don’t deserve special treatment as a result and it should only be fixed if luring them back provides a good value. Thus whether or not this is a leak we should be plugging is an empirical economic question and it’s only in the face of real data on marginal costs and productivities that we can answer whether or not we should address the ‘problem’.
Perhaps childrearing and religion are presupposed as normal components of the good life, and so it is thought that they should not be subject to trade-offs in the manner of our (other) chosen values. Writing a novel is a choice you make, and a somewhat peculiar one at that; having kids, on the other hand, is simply par for the course in a 'normal' life. This difference in normality may be thought to underwrite the special obligation to accommodate the one choice more than the other. But why should normality matter?