Footbaths are generally unassuming bathroom fixtures that are sometimes found in bathrooms. You wouldn’t expect them to cause too much controversy – that is, until you add that Muslims use them before praying. This is exactly what has happened at the University’s Dearborn campus, where a simple plan to accommodate Muslim students by installing footbaths has exploded into an unnecessary debate about the Establishment Clause, religious privilege and University spending.
In its current form, the proposal would install footbaths in bathrooms as part of a larger building renovation. The entire bathroom renovation would cost $100,000, $25,000 of which would go to the installation of the footbaths. For Muslim students, whose religion traditionally requires them to wash their feet before praying, the footbaths could make life a lot easier.
Predictably, the plan has caused a great uproar in the conservative consortium, which claims that these accommodations constitute a violation of the separation of church and state. According to their logic, the University is a state-funded body that is giving privilege to a religious group.
But this argument only shows how little these people know about the First Amendment. No one would be excluded from using the footbaths. Therefore, installing them in no way equates to the government forcing a chosen religion onto the public. If you want to see that sort of a violation, try looking at the Bush administration’s stances on gay marriage or abortion. Additionally, the project’s budget comes from student fees for building maintenance, meaning that state funding will not be appropriated for the project.
Yes, the plan costs money – money that many people think that the University shouldn’t be spending. But what the University is doing in Dearborn is the same thing it does at all its campuses: accommodates students’ religious needs. Here in Ann Arbor, dining halls provide special meal accommodations during Lent and Passover and students can be excused for religious holidays if they provide appropriate documentation. Twenty-five thousand dollars is a small price to pay to give Muslim students the same treatment.
One has to wonder why conservatives are up in arms about the footbaths and not these other accommodations. Unfortunately, when you consider that Muslims are frequently the subjects of discrimination in our country, this may be less of a civil liberties issue and more an issue of discrimination. The University should not let these criticisms alter its plans or hinder it from meeting the needs of its students.