The latest battle of religion in the public square is unfolding in Dearborn, Michigan, a city with one of the highest Muslim populations in the country. At the University of Michigan’s local campus, administrators have recently refitted several school bathrooms to include small footbaths in the corner — an accommodation for Muslim students who must perform ritual washing as part of their daily observance. The issue has more than a few of the usual suspects trying to explain their way out of their usual positions on the separation of church and state.
The Detroit chapter of the ACLU has scrambled to find a way to recuse itself from the matter, claiming that the footbaths qualify as secular since they could be used by non-Muslims, and therefore don’t cross the group’s usual bright church-state line. Further, the ACLU explains, the university’s decision to take on the $25,000 expense was motivated primarily “by health and safety” because some students didn’t like washing their hands in the sinks after others students had washed their feet. If that hadn’t been the case, the group says this religious accommodation would surely have merited greater investigation and criticism.
Uh-huh. This is the same ACLU chapter that in 2005 objected to a high-school wrestling coach saying a prayer with his team before meets, calling the action “inherently coercive.” And the ACLU of Michigan is already on the defensive for its non-action this time. In a letter explaining its silence regarding university footbaths, the ACLU notes that it “has often come to the defense of other religions when the state has attempted to interfere with their religious expression.” The letter even includes a list of cases in which the group has defended Christian clients. Too bad none of the examples prove much of a parallel to the current recusal over state recognition of a religious practice.
Truer to form was the Council on American Islamic Relations, which immediately hollered that objections were all a case of Islamaphobia, and fear that the university was going to become “Islamified.” But that’s a hard assertion to prove in an America that frequently goes 10 rounds over the sight of a Christmas creche in the public square. CAIR’s invocation of American bigotry has become so reflexive that we wonder if its spinners even bother to rewrite their press releases.
For our part, we see no reason to object to University of Michigan’s gesture to some of its Muslim students. Freedom of religion has never meant freedom from religion, and making it easier for people of different backgrounds to practice their faiths is a perfectly American thing to do. Many schools have chapels on campus, a fact that bothers very few. And few places object to kosher offerings in school cafeterias — an accommodation for Jewish students causing no inconvenience to others.
A university is entitled to some discretion in how it serves its student body. Let’s hope the ACLU takes this case as an opportunity to cleanse itself of inconsistencies.
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