Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Much Ado About Footbaths

I came across a story on Digg.com that describes an interesting dilemma for universities: how to reconcile the needs of their students while maintaining delineations of church and state. Specifically, the University of Michigan-Dearborn (I go to the main campus in Ann Arbor) has come under criticism for plans to install two footbaths, at a cost of $25,000, to accommodate their Muslim students. Muslims are required to wash their feet prior to the five times daily prayers, and non-Muslim students had complained that bathroom sinks were being used for this purpose. This created unsafe, slippery floors and a less-than-sanitary place to wash your hands. The footbaths were also officially requested as an accommodation by the university’s Muslim Student Organization. The University of Michigan is not the first university to consider installing footbaths–over a dozen colleges already have.

(Continued below the fold….)

However, I was surprised to read the nasty response in the official Washington Times article:

“Supreme Court cases have been heard on far less-obvious violations of our Establishment Clause,” Dr. Jasser said. “Many if not most American Muslims are currently well able to accommodate our own prayers and ablution to the spaces and facilities provided to all other faiths on public grounds without special accommodations. Islamists use the ‘free exercise’ clause when it suits them and then turn around and use tax monies in the name of Islam when it suits them.”

Dr. Jasser said the foot bath marks the start down “a slippery slope of preferential treatment of one religion over another,” which he said is what the First Amendment was established to prevent.

“These baths exert a monetary cost upon publicly funded institutions which by our Constitution should not appease the financial demands of one faith group over another,” he said. “Every other faith group on campus should be demanding that they be provided equal funding and space — which basically demonstrates how outrageous these accommodations are.”

The University of Michigan, similar to almost all public and private institutions, has many faith-based groups as well as interfaith groups on campus. There are chapels and ministries for a variety of faiths on campus, and universities quite frequently build, or contribute funds to, centers for certain segments of the student body (ie, a new Jewish center was recently built on central campus here). Taxpayers are often made to bear the financial burden for faith-based initiatives (the current administration being particularly fond of them), however the willingness to pay for them often only goes one way: “will it benefit MY group?”

The footbaths will aid in creating a safe and sanitary environment for all students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the financial burden ($25,000) is far less offensive to me, someone with no religious beliefs, than the millions and billions that have been spent on faith-based programs yielding no discernible benefit. School holidays already accomdate Christians, with Christmas and Easter off, it seems hypocritical for schools to offer no accomdations to Muslims at all. Especially if they make up a significant portion of the student body, as is the case at UM-Dearborn (10%).

The New York Times has covered the story as well, with a bit more interesting a reasoned commentary.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the footbath issue is complex.

“Our policy is to object whenever public funds are spent on any brick and mortar component of religion,” said Kary Moss, director of the Michigan Civil Liberties Union. “What makes this different, though, is that the footbaths themselves can be used by anyone, don’t have any symbolic value and are not stylized in a religious way. They’re in a regular restroom, and could be just as useful to a janitor filling up buckets, or someone coming off the basketball court, as to Muslim students.”

Comments

  1. #1 Dan
    August 31, 2007

    Yes. But you forget that a great many Christians do seem to feel persecuted at just about everything involving the differing beliefs of others. Even if these baths were set up and designated as a sort of “slop-sink” solely for the janitors, if the university were to allow a religious group to use them as part of their ritual, someone will be offended and feel that the Muslims are getting special treatment.

    There is plenty of room and plenty of money to accommodate these baths, and there really doesn’t need to be this much insignificant outrage over something which will not only make thing more sanitary, but it will also provide convenience to a diverse student body.

    On the other hand, this is Michigan we’re talking about here. I didn’t think the student body there ever took a shower much less washed their feet. :)

    Go Badgers!

  2. #2 Boosterz
    August 31, 2007

    If you ask a far right christian, they will tell you that the separation of church and state is a “myth”. But if an establishment issue comes up that is dealing with a religion OTHER then christianity, then suddenly the fundies not only believe in the establishment clause but they become rabid defenders of it. Rather interesting dichotomy don’t you think?

  3. #3 Charlie (Colorado)
    August 31, 2007

    It’s been a long time since I looked, but as I recall the various religious things on the CU campus, at least, had to be 100 percent externally funded. Going the other direction, I can think of a number of potential accommodations for Christians that aren’t made on separation grounds. The point being that while I can’t get excited about footbaths, I don’t think the complaints about explicit accommodations made with university funding are entirely meritless.

  4. #4 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    August 31, 2007

    What accomodations have been made for the Rastafarians?

  5. #5 Shelley Batts
    August 31, 2007

    How about Pastafarians?

  6. #6 fersch
    August 31, 2007

    As a militant athiest I take serious umbrage over anything religious and it makes my blood run cold to think that even one cent taxpayers money could be spent on this lunacy.

  7. #7 DuWayne
    August 31, 2007

    What accomodations have been made for the Rastafarians?

    In Ann Arbor!?!?! It’s only one of the very safest towns in the country, to partake of their particular sacrament. Granted, it has gone up and down, but I have personally enjoyed quite a bit of the Rasta’s sacrament there over the years. Hell, quite a few times with Rastas. Hash bash is one of the few things that I miss, since moving away from Michigan and I don’t really smoke much weed any more.

    How about Pastafarians?

    Dammit, now I’m simultaneously struck with the urge to get high in Ann Arbor and have the endless plate of pasta, with a side of calamari rings at Emil’s in Lansing. Unfortunately, I’m two thousand miles away from either.

  8. #8 Bram Cohen
    September 1, 2007

    Actually, the association between Christianity and Christmas is tenuous at best, with most of the practices having modern invention and the whole association having no biblical basis whatsoever. The tradition goes back to Yule, and the association was made up to get rid of the embarrassing situation of having a prominent pre-christian holiday.

    Besides, we all know that the true meaning of Christmas is that it’s the capitalist gift-giving holiday. Yay consumer demand!

  9. #9 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 2, 2007

    Go, Appalachian State! Wooo- woo!

    SB: Cheap shot!

  10. #10 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 3, 2007

    Big Blue set themselves up for that cheap shot. What were they doing playing against a I-AA team anyway? Padding the pre-conference stats?

    SB: Not sure. I know about as much about football as I do about quantum physics.

  11. #11 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 3, 2007

    Football, footbaths – really, what’s the difference?

  12. #12 pough
    September 6, 2007

    Football, footbaths – really, what’s the difference?

    Balls; also, cleanliness.

  13. #13 k
    September 8, 2007

    NO government money should be used for ANYTHING religious. It doesn’t matter if they have the money to blow or how much they spent in the past on other religious nonsense. 2 wrongs don’t make a right.

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