Dec 06, 2007

Officials at the University of Michigan in Dearborn risk violating the Constitution if they proceed with plans to install special foot-washing stations for Muslim students in campus bathrooms, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a Dec. 4 letter to Daniel Little, chancellor of the university, Americans United attorneys warn that the university’s plans to build footbaths with university funds may lead to “unlawful fostering of religion.”

The issue has sparked controversy at the University of Michigan and other campuses with large Muslim populations.  Some Muslim students are compelled by their religious beliefs to wash their feet several times per day before prayers, and the university is planning to build special footbaths.

Americans United’s letter explains that arguments that the footbaths can be defended as an “accommodation” of religion are flawed because the footbaths “provide a benefit to one particular religious group” and are to be financed with university funds.

“The government simply cannot be in the business of building special religious facilities for members of certain groups,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The Constitution mandates that government remain neutral among religions. Providing special treatment to one group is not neutrality.”

AU’s letter to Little and the university’s Board of Regents, written by Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, offers an alternative.

“We accordingly suggest that the University explore alternative means for addressing its concerns about student foot-washing,” reads the letter. “For example, the University could install or provide appropriate sanitary facilities, equipment, or supplies such as full showers with moveable heads that are not linked to any particular religious practice and could be of broad use to students of all backgrounds.”

The letter invites university officials to contact Americans United attorneys to discuss alternatives to resolve the issue in a way that does not raise constitutional difficulties.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.