Monday, May 28, 2007

UM Dearborn Teaches How One Foot Washes the Other

The University of Michigan-Dearborn has contracted with a firm of architects to install foot baths for the use of Muslim students wanting to engage in ritual foot-washing. We mentioned this briefly a few weeks ago. But the University's plan seems to be drawing absolutely no public discussion.

Since then Dearborn Underground has obtained a letter sent out by UM Vice President Jerry May in reply to citizens concerned about the use of public money for an indulgence of a particular religious practice, an endorsement that would never be tolerated for any other religion.

U-M Vice President Jerry May wrote as follows:

I want to thank you for taking the time to share with me your concerns regarding the University. We will, of course, honor your request that we remove you from our distribution lists. I would, however, like to address some of the issues you raised in your email, if I may. The tradition of setting aside space for meditation or quiet reflection by University of Michigan students, faculty, and staff stretches back more than 150 years. In 1841, the UM student's day began with a required visit to chapel; and in 1872, Henry S. Frieze, then serving as Acting President of the University, presided over development of University Hall, which included a new auditorium and chapel. In 1897, the U-M Alumni Association convened its founding meeting in that same space.

The tradition continues. As our nation has become more pluralistic and diverse, chapels have been replaced by non-religious, non-denominational reflection rooms in public and private universities across the country. The University of Michigan believes that reflection is an important factor in a person's life, and we have worked to create opportunities to address this need by providing spaces for quiet reflection on all three of our campuses. These spaces are heavily used by students, faculty, and staff of all faiths.

On the UM-Dearborn campus, we have contracted with the Birmingham, Michigan, firm Niagara Murano, LLC, for design services on a couple of different projects, including foot-washing stations to provide appropriate and safe accommodations for a practice customary among a significant proportion of the campus community. Like the reflection rooms, the foot-washing stations will be open to all members of the UM-Dearborn community who wish to use them.

I assure you that the University of Michigan is, and always intends to, fully observe the law, which is our duty as shepherds of the trust of the citizens of this good State. Please let me know if there is anything more I may do for you.

Again, thank you for your comments.

Vice President May’s rationalization of the “tradition” of “setting aside space for meditation or quiet reflection” rings pretty hollow. As he himself explains, the practice of the University from its earliest policy of mandatory (Christian) chapel for all students, has tracked consistently in the opposite direction from preferential religious practices, and towards a more and more generalized view of religion in its most amorphous sense.

May explains this himself: “As our nation has become more pluralistic and diverse, chapels have been replaced by non-religious, non-denominational reflection rooms in public and private universities across the country.”

Exactly. You may like this trend or hate it, depending on your views of church-state separation, but clearly the legal trend (which the rest of us have to make do with) has been consistently away from requiring or even encouraging specific religious practices, all the way to merely allowing only “non-religious, non-denominational” spaces that are completely voluntary, and so bland and non-committal, that they neither inspire, nor offend, any religion, or lack thereof.

The punishment that Christian expression has undergone in the enforcement of this regime in public facilities is too well known for me to repeat here, except that even in its most indirect form (not just Santa has been deemed off-limits, but even Frosty the Snowman), Christianity in particular has effectively been driven off public campuses.

But after explaining how the UM tradition became embodied in the “non-religious, non-denominational” space provided to all, May unreasonably suggests that, given the historical progress from mandatory chapel down to religiously anonymous reflection rooms, the next logical step would be the construction of ritual foot baths to encourage a religious practice engaged in only by one religious group.

It is irrelevant that non-Muslims, theoretically, will be allowed to use the foot baths. The likelihood that any non-Muslim will use the foot baths at all is extremely small. (I admit that, since it is still a college campus, there's going to be the odd New Ager trying it out just to impress her Rasta boyfriend with how kicky and open she is).

Nor is it even conceivable that nonMuslim students or University personnel attempting to use the foot baths for a non-ritualistic purpose are going to be well tolerated by Muslim students. (For example, track team members washing their sweaty feet before rushing to class; janitors dumping their mop buckets). I can easily picture how complaints by offended Muslims witnessing any such irreverent uses would force the University to yet further clarify that--out of respect for the "significant proportion of the [Muslim] campus community," use of the foot baths is limited TO RITUAL WASHING FOOT WASHING ONLY.

Is there really any doubt the exclusive benefit of the foot baths is going to go towards facilitating the practice of a Muslim ritual by Muslim students?

The comparison with Bible study groups permitted to use empty classrooms only serves to show how different the foot baths will be.

University facilities such as classrooms already exist for a secular purpose (class instruction), and special interest student groups are allowed to use those existing facilities when they aren’t otherwise in use. It doesn't cost the public anything, because the rooms have to be heated and air conditioned anyway, and the nominal cost to turn the lights on for an hour are easily paid for by use fees all students have to pay, anyway. If the public are still offended that students are studying the Bible in unused college classrooms, (as many still are), they can at least console themselves that the classrooms weren't specially constructed for that purpose.

The point being that it's UM's facilitation of the foot-washing that runs afoul of the strictly religiously-neutral scheme all the rest of us have had to go along with. For UM to allow use of existing, unused classroom space to a Bible study group, a chess club, or any other group of students with a lawful purpose is nothing more than a passive accommodation, which in this context is just another term for “tolerating.” Beyond the nominal use of lights, classroom furniture, and air conditioning, no Bible study group would expect their Bibles and songbooks to be provided by the University, nor does the chess group expect to play with boards and pieces provided by the administration. In one sense, all the University is contributing these different groups is the barest permission to use empty space off hours.

By the same token, I doubt any one would object to Muslim students using existing restroom facilities if they need to engage in ritual washing, provided it did not interfere with the ordinary use of facilities by other students.

But in stark contrast to the granting of permission to use classroom space, the Muslim foot baths are not existing University facilities purpose-built for a secular educational function, and thereafter lent to Muslim students from time to time by way of accommodation. The foot baths don't compare because they have to be purpose-built facilities, and will need to be designed, constructed, and maintained, at public expense, for no other reason than facilitating the practice of a ritual distinctively practiced by Muslims. No one pretends they will be of use for any other purpose, educational or otherwise.

As the verb “facilitate” suggests, the baths are being provided to make it easier, to smooth the way for, and in effect, to encourage a ritual practice of the Muslim religion.

And that is why it is an unlawful endorsement of religion.


Anonymous said...

This is only a test

Catholic in Dearborn said...

If the University of Michigan is willing to build these foot washing stations - then why can't those of us who are Catholic have a Holy Water font installed also? Surely faithful Catholic students would appreciate having a quiet place in which to pray and reflect and some time during the day.

Catholic in Dearborn

T.R. Clancy said...

Excellent analogy about Holy Water fonts. Why not install them near every classroom doorway (the Catholic custom)? It would have to be EVERY doorway, so that no Catholic attending classes in a room without a font would be forced to walk all the way to one that had a font, thus suffering discrimination, as well as being late for class.

I suggested the same analogy on Russ Gibb at Random.

Or should the government pay for mezuzzahs in residence halls in colleges with large Jewish enrollment, as long as Gentile kids can bless themselves, too?