Dearborn, USA – 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.
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“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.”
Nationwide, more than a dozen universities have footbaths, many installed in new buildings. On some campuses, like George Mason University in Virginia, and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich., there was no outcry. At Eastern Michigan, even some Muslim students were surprised by the appearance of the footbath — a single spigot delivering 45 seconds of water — in a partitioned corner of the restroom in the new student union.
“My sister told me about it, and I didn’t believe it,” said Najla Malaibari, a graduate student at Eastern Michigan. “I was, ‘No way,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, go crazy.’ It really is convenient.”
But after a Muslim student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College slipped and hurt herself last fall while washing her feet in a sink, word got out there that the college was considering installing a footbath, 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.
Mr. Davis said that after a legal briefing, the board concluded that installing footbaths was constitutional, and that the college hoped to have a plan in place by the next school year.
Here in Dearborn, the university called the footbaths a health and safety measure, not a religious decision. And it argued that while the footbaths may benefit Muslim students, they will be available to others, like lacrosse players 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, Mich., posted, “Forget about the Constitutionally mandated separation of church and state … at least when it comes to 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.”
“They’re building a structure for a particular religious tradition,” Mr. Downs added, “and the Constitution says the government isn’t supposed to endorse a particular religion.”
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.”
Then, too, Ms. 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 footbaths 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 even washed her feet in the sink.
As at other campuses, Dearborn’s Muslim Students’ Association chapter has pushed for, and won, halal food and a “reflection room,” used mostly for Muslim prayers, but occasionally by Christian groups. But it did not ask for the footbaths, said Farhan Latif, a graduate student and adviser to the group.
“The idea came from the administration, and we were consulted,” Mr. Latif said. “And we were surprised at the hate mail that came in after it got into the media.”