The Muslim Students’ Association’s recent call for a prayer room on campus is understandable. In order to facilitate students’ prayer obligations, the association wants a more convenient solution than having to move to random, ill-equipped rooms. The group’s desired prayer room would be in addition to the four existing reflection rooms, which cannot meet the association’s purpose because they are too small. While the University cannot create a room designated exclusively for religious use by any denomination, the concerns expressed can be alleviated by providing larger reflection rooms and making more large rentable rooms available for campus groups to use for any purpose, including prayer.
While there are several churches within walking distance, the nearest mosque is a short bus ride away from Central Campus, which often makes things difficult for students who want to pray quickly between classes. The existing reflection rooms in campus buildings – intended for quiet mediation, reflection or prayer – are too small to help most students: The reflection room in Angell Hall, for example, would pass for an undersized walk-in closet in most homes.
Because the University fosters an open and diverse climate in other capacities, accommodation for all religious groups through provision of non-denominational and neutral prayer space serves the University’s best interests. Because the existing reflection rooms cannot accommodate more than one person at a time in some cases, larger ones are required. The U.S. Supreme Court has deemed prayer at public institutions constitutional as long as it is done privately, so these larger reflection rooms themselves are perfectly acceptable. They must be built with the same non-denominational intentions as current reflection rooms and must not clearly favor a religious use over secular use.
Even those larger reflection rooms, however, cannot accommodate group prayers because that would be a violation of their neutral purpose. For such prayers, campus groups must rent out other rooms. This process is sometimes a hassle for all student groups because they have to move from room to room for their regularly scheduled meetings. A solution is for the University to compile and widely post a list of rooms that are available at certain times each semester. Groups could then book the same room for several weeks and thus have a set place to meet.
In cases of accommodating various religious practices, the University must be as accepting as possible without overstepping boundaries. The special meal times provided for Muslims during Ramadan and the special meals provided for Jewish students during Passover are examples of perfectly acceptable accommodation. Another good example is the University of Michigan at Dearborn’s recent decision to install footbaths, low sinks used to wash feet. Though the footbaths will mostly be used by Muslim students, they can be equally used by anyone and therefore do not constitute a violation. Expanding reflection rooms and making the process of booking rooms for private group prayer would follow in this same vein.