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Foot baths cause controversy at Dearborn campus

BY SARAH SALA
Daily Staff Reporter
Published July 1, 2007

The University of Michigan at Dearborn announced in June its plans to spend $25,000 on the installation of two foot baths in two campus bathrooms this August.

The University deemed the footbath stations a necessary accommodation for the university's large Muslim population because many Muslims perform cleansing rituals that require them to wash their hands, face and feet before prayer up to five times a day, said Tom Baird, vice chancellor for institutional advancement at the University's Dearborn campus.

Baird said some Muslim students had resorted to washing their feet in the bathroom sinks, provoking concerns for safety and sanitation.

The two foot baths will be installed in the University Center and Fairlane Center South buildings, he said.

He said the money for the project came from fees students pay for campus infrastructure maintenance and renovation. Because this money comes from students, Baird said they should be able to put it toward better accommodating them at the university.

However, those opposing the foot baths claim the university has no right to install the foot-washing stations because to do so would be to violate the first amendment that calls for a separation of church and state in public institutions.

Supporters of the foot baths say the University's Dearborn campus is not violating the law because non-Muslim students can also use them.

But Hal Downs, president of the Michigan chapter of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the foot baths are too religious to be present at a public institution.

"They're religious in nature and they don't have a real secular use," he said.

Downs said he would be concerned about how they would be used secularly because "the opportunity for defilement is very, very obvious."

He said his organization would rather see something like rubber floor mats to protect against slips and falls or stools for students to sit on while cleaning their feet, instead of the foot-washing stations.

"The foot baths are aggressive accommodations in that they are permanent fixtures," Downs said.

Majed Afana, Vice President of the Muslim Students Association at the University's Dearborn campus, said his organization fully supports the construction of the foot baths but "it needs to be cleared up that it's not strictly for the Muslim students. It is available for all students."

Afana said he talked with students on sports teams who said they would use the foot baths to wash their feet.

Afana said ablution, or ritual washing, is a big part of the prayer process and many Muslim students would welcome the foot baths. But he said not all Muslim students feel compelled to perform the ritual at school.

Ganj Ahmad, a junior in the College of Arts Sciences & Letters who is Muslim, said he doesn't feel comfortable using the school sinks to wash his feet.

In the past, Ahmad said he walked to his house near campus to wash his feet before or after he attends class. He said the foot baths would be an improvement.

"We live in Dearborn where there's a big Muslim population. At least 60 percent of the Muslims I know pray at school and they have to use the sink to wash their feet. It would be better to use a sink that's specifically designed to wash our feet," Ahmad said.

Baird listed Boston University, the University of Wisconsin


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