Wednesday, August 29, 2007

DEARBORN, Mich. — Plans to construct two foot-washing stations continue at the University of Michigan at Dearborn amid concerns that such action would constitute an establishment of religion by the public university.

The 8,700-student school near Detroit, which begins fall classes Tuesday, came under criticism in June when it announced that it would spend about $25,000 on the two foot-washing areas that were requested as an accommodation by a Muslim Student Association’s task force. The foot baths come while the state is in a budget crisis and tuition and fees have risen at all of the state’s public universities, up 7.9 percent at the Dearborn campus alone.

Data from a study of entering freshmen suggest that about 10 percent of students at the university are Muslim, and many have in the past used bathroom sinks for the foot washing, called an ablution, which Islam requires as a purity ritual before its five-times-daily prayers.

The cleansing practice prompted concerns from other students and administrators that it was not only unsanitary but also created a safety hazard by making the lavatory floors wet. The new foot-washing stations, built at ground level, are part of a renovation project at two locations on campus and will be paid for with money from the school’s general fund.

The foot baths, while benefiting Muslim students, are open for use by all students and will be located in two new unisex bathrooms that will be renovated on campus.

The university, in a statement posted on its Web site, said the foot baths reflect a “strong commitment to a pluralistic society” and “a reflection of our values of respect, tolerance and safe accommodation of student needs.”

School spokesman Terry Gallagher said the school, a part of the University of Michigan system, has received calls about the foot baths from many outside the university and state, but only about a half-dozen calls from the school’s 36,000 alumni. So far, the school has not lost money from donors and, as far as he knows, no one has challenged the foot baths legally.

Zuhdi Jasser, a Phoenix physician who serves as chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, said he is surprised there has not been more outrage.

“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.”

Sheldon E. Steinbach, a senior education lawyer at the law firm Dow Lohnes in Washington, D.C., says the expenditure is not a major issue and called the accommodation “minor.”

“Under normal circumstances of 21st-century America, unless there is some massive protest including a march on the president’s office, this minor accommodation, which is politically sensitive and seemingly, in the eyes of many so far, reasonably appropriate, will continue to be an unnoticed minor event,” predicted Mr. Steinbach, a former longtime general counsel for the American Council on Education, which represents most of the nation’s top universities.

John Matthies, assistant director of Islamist Watch, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said more than a dozen colleges and universities across the nation have foot baths or are in the process of creating them. He thinks the foot bath amounts to “specific rights accorded to a particular demographic.”

“I think it’s shocking that the university administration has become so susceptible to this kind of pressure from student groups. It is wrong for people to remain quiet because this is clearly not a question of racism or of civil rights,” Mr. Matthies said. “If small concessions like these are allowed to go forward with little or no discussion, then we leave ourselves open to demands for privileged or segregated space. This is one particular group singled out using taxpayer money to do it. It has nothing to do with openness or inclusiveness.”

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