New York Time's : Tax Payer's Money : $25000.00 dollar'sSome U.S. universities install foot baths for Muslim students
By Tamar Lewin
Published: Tuesday, August 7, 2007
DEARBORN, Michigan — When pools of water began accumulating on the floors in some bathrooms at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the sinks began 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 the 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 bathrooms.
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 was a legitimate accommodation of students' right to practice their religion or unconstitutional government.
"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.Nationwide, more than a dozen universities have foot baths, many installed in new buildings. On some campuses, like George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, there has been no outcry.
At Eastern Michigan, even some Muslim students were surprised by the appearance of the foot bath with a single spigot delivering 45 seconds of water in a partitioned corner of the restroom in the new student union.But after a Muslim student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College slipped and hurt herself last autumn while washing her feet in a sink, word got out there that the college was considering installing a foot bath, and a local columnist accused the college of a double standard - stopping a campus coffee cart from playing Christmas music but taking a different attitude toward Islam.
"After the column, a Christian conservative group issued an action alert to its members, which prompted 3,000 e-mail and 600 voice messages to me and/or legislators," said Phil Davis, president of the college.
Davis said that after a legal briefing, the board concluded that installing foot baths was constitutional and that the college hoped to have a plan in place by the next school year.
In Dearborn, the university called the foot baths a health and safety measure, not a religious decision. And it argued that while the foot baths may benefit Muslim students, they will be available to others who want to wash their feet.
Still, the plans are controversial.
"My first reaction was, 'Where's the money coming from?' " said Emily Hutfloetz, a senior. "I feel like it's favoring one group of people."On her Web site, Debbie Schlussel, a conservative lawyer and blogger in Southfield, Michigan, posted, "Forget about the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state" when it became a matter of "mosque and state."
And in an editorial, the student newspaper, The Michigan Journal, worried that opponents would turn their hostility "on Muslim students at the university and Islam as a whole."
Hal Downs, president of the Michigan chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, "The university claims it's available for Western students as well, but, traditionally, Western students don't wash their feet five times day."
The American Civil Liberties Union says the foot bath 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 foot baths 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."
Then, too, Moss said, the health and safety component is not normally part of religious accommodation cases.
"This came from the maintenance staff, which was worried about the wet floors," she said. "We were also aware that if the university said students could not wash their feet in the sink anymore, that could present a different civil liberties problem, interfering with Muslim students' ability to practice their religion."
Some Muslim students seem bothered by the controversy, saying they might not have considered foot baths worth fighting for.
"I think this was the school's way to try to draw more Muslims, by showing that they were welcoming," said Zahraa Aljebori, a sophomore at Dearborn, who said she never washed her feet in the sink.