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.”