Universities Install Footbaths to Benefit Muslims, and Not Everyone Is Pleased

From the NYT:

DEARBORN, Mich. — When pools of water began accumulating on the floor in some restrooms at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the sinks pulling away from the walls, the problem was easy to pinpoint. On this campus, more than 10 percent of the students are Muslims, and as part of ritual ablutions required before their five-times-a-day prayers, some were washing their feet in the sinks.

The solution seemed straightforward. After discussions with the Muslim Students’ Association, the university announced that it would install $25,000 foot-washing stations in several restrooms.

But as a legal and political matter, that solution has not been quite so simple. When word of the plan got out this spring, it created instant controversy, with bloggers going on about the Islamification of the university, students divided on the use of their building-maintenance fees, and tricky legal questions about whether the plan is a legitimate accommodation of students’ right to practice their religion — or unconstitutional government support for that religion.

“It’s an awkward thing,” said Alexis Oesterle, a junior. “If I’m sitting with Muslim friends, I wouldn’t want to bring it up. In this country, at this time, it’s not so easy to discuss the issues of Muslims in American society.”

As the nation’s Muslim population grows, issues of religious accommodation are becoming more common, and more complicated. Many public school districts are grappling with questions about prayer rooms for Muslim students, halal food in cafeterias and scheduling around important Muslim holidays. As Muslim students point out, the school calendar already accommodates Christians, with Sundays off and vacations around Christmas and Easter.

“Starting about two years ago, school attorneys have been asking more and more questions about accommodations for Muslim students,” said Lisa Soronen, a National School Boards Association lawyer. “These issues don’t get litigated very often; they’re usually worked out one by one.”



Anonymous said…
Footwashing and Public Funds

The New York Timesrecently highlighted the controversy of some state universities installing special footbaths in restroom facilities to accommodate the practices of Muslim students who wash their feet before prayers. Washing feet in sinks led to occasional accidents, wet floors, and damaged fixtures. The question, of course, is whether there's a church and state problem with public universities paying to install the special facilities.

Remembering the case Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has long made for maximum accommodation of religion, I asked for his opinion. Land is the recent author of a book tailor-fitted to the controversy, The Divided States of America: What Liberals AND Conservatives Are Missing in the God-and-Country Shouting Match!. He supports universities accommodating Muslim religious practice as an expression of "principled pluralism" which represents America at its best. Although he approves of the decision to accommodate the installation of footbaths, Land suggests a different funding mechanism. He believes the university should work with the local Muslim community to gain funding for the new fixtures, rather than paying for them out of the general student fund. Thus, a public university accommodates without sponsoring.

The bottom line, Land says, is that accommodation is a far wiser policy than avoidance or hostility. In this way, the United States deftly sidesteps both the "theocratic authoritarianism" of the Islamic state that requires all women to wear headcoverings and the "supreme secularism" of France that forces a student to decide whether to be true to her faith or go to public school.

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