Mosque and State: Taxpayer Dollars, Time Devoted to Islam in Schools

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - Decisions by public schools and colleges to provide special prayer times or to make other allowances for Muslim students have raised eyebrows -- but not all groups that oppose expressions of religion in the public domain are speaking out.

Some religious liberty advocates -- who have long battled efforts to purge government of religious displays, Bible readings and graduation prayers -- regard the Muslim-accomodation trend as an opportunity that should be seized.

In one instance, the University of Michigan is preparing to spend $25,000 to install two footbaths at its Dearborn campus to accommodate Muslim students wanting to wash their feet before prayers.

Muslims initially were willing to raise the money to cover the cost, but the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union -- often a foe of faith in the public square -- said there was no constitutional reason why the university could not fund the project.

Kary Moss, director of the group, told the Detroit Free Press that providing the footbaths was "reasonable" and "an attempt to deal with a problem, not an attempt to make it easier for Muslims to pray."

A Michigan ACLU spokeswoman declined to comment further until a formal opinion is issued on July 14.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a group that frequently sides with the ACLU in such disputes, believes the decision to spend the money on the footbaths singles out one religion for special treatment.

"There are serious constitutional questions when you have non-neutral accommodations available that's not equal to everyone," the group's assistant legal director, Richard Katskee, told Cybercast News Service. "There is no particular religious appearance to footbaths, but they serve no secular use. It's like building a church on campus and saying its okay because everyone is allowed in."

Muslim students on the Dearborn campus defended the decision. Providing the footbaths is not just a religious accommodation, argued Majed Afana, vice president of the Muslim Student Association chapter. It's also a safety measure so students won't fall while washing their feet in conventional sinks, he said.

"Various accommodations are made for students on campus," Afana told Cybercast News Service. "It's something for all the students. It's not a school endorsement of religion. It's available to every student. I heard sports people say they would use it. I heard women say they would use it in the summertime if they wore flip flops."

A university statement calls the footbaths "a reflection of our values of respect, tolerance and safe accommodation of student needs."

University spokesman Terry Gallagher said university space is allotted for other religious student groups, which -- like all other campus clubs -- are eligible to receive university money.

Citing a voluntary freshman survey, he said about 11 percent of the student body at the Dearborn campus is Muslim.

The footbaths in Michigan are similar to one that will be provided for students at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Yet at that same college, the administration reportedly banned a campus coffee cart from playing Christmas carols last year and warned faculty and staff to refrain from displays that represent a particular religious holiday during December. The administration did not respond to queries.

"There is clearly a double standard couched in multi-culturalism and diversity, to the detriment of other religions, most especially Christianity," said Brian Rooney, spokesman for the Thomas Moore Law Center, a Christian legal group.

'Accommodate all faiths'

Another school stoking controversy in this area is Carver Elementary in the San Diego Unified School District, which provides students with a 15-minute break each afternoon at what is traditionally a Muslim prayer time.

District spokesman Jack Brandais said students aren't required to pray during this time. Also, other students in the San Diego school district conduct Bible studies and other faith activities during lunch, recess and after school, he added.

"Federal law says that students are allowed to participate in religious practice during non-instructional time," Brandais told Cybercast News Service.

But critics say the problem in this and other cases is that the extra time and space is being allotted for a specific religion, thus favoring it above others.

"The absence of extending that accommodation to kids of other faiths clearly amounts to a state endorsement of religion," Brad Dacus, president of the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a religious liberties legal group, told Cybercast News Service.

Rather than banning Islamic accommodations, however, PJI is urging the district to become a national model by allowing voluntary prayer time for children of all faiths.

"I do see a golden opportunity for the district to provide true tolerance -- not abolition, but true accommodation to allow the spiritual needs of students to be met without amounting the endorsement of any particular faith," Dacus said. "One thing that will not be tolerated is a school district accommodating prayer for one faith, but not for all."

But Katskee of Americans United insists that isn't the solution. The San Diego school prayer time violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, he insisted.

"To say if Muslims do something unlawful, then Christians and Jews should get to do something unlawful as well is not the way to go about it," Katskee said. "A violation is not solved by extending the violation to others."

(In another California case, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 ruled in favor of the Byron Union School District after parents sued over a seventh-grade history class that required students to take Muslim names, memorize Muslim prayers and verses from the Koran, and give up something, such as watching TV, to represent fasting. The court ruled that the school, in Contra Costa County, was using the role-playing to educate the students about Islam, not indoctrinating them. The 9th Circuit is the same court that in 2002 declared the words "under God" to be unconstitutional in the Pledge of Allegiance.)

'Logistical requirements'

Like many other schools, L.V. Beckner High School in Richardson, Tex., did not allow students to pray in school. But after a Muslim student sued, it clarified the policy in 2005 and now allows prayer during lunch breaks or in a designated praying area.

That same year, the Cliffside Park, N.J., school district allowed 14-year-old Muslim girl to use her lunch time to pray.

In both cases, the schools -- which had first attempted to prohibit the prayer -- said they were providing non-instructional time permitted by the law.

An allotted prayer time for Muslim students differs from setting aside school time for other prayers because Islam requires prayers at a specific time in the day, said Ibraham Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).

"Muslims just have logistical requirements that need to be filled," he told Cybercast News Service.

As for the foot-washing facilities, Hooper said Muslims have been criticized before for washing their feet in public sinks. "We get it both ways," he said.

"We get criticism from the right -- from the same people who demand real accommodations for their own religion," Hooper said.

( correspondent Whitney Stewart contributed to this report.)

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