For years now, I have been arguing that when people in public education face a revolt by conservative Christians or Orthodox Jews, they should play the following mind game. When these conservative parents arrive to make their complaints -- raising questions about school curriculum, equal access for prayer groups, etc., etc. -- educators should look them right in the face and attempt, as much as possible, to pretend that they are Muslims. Then, educators should try to be as flexible and polite with the traditional Jews and Christians as they would be with Muslims, in an attempt to meet their cultural and religious needs. I still think this is a good plan.
Religious liberty is not easy and government attempts to defend it are rarely perfect. But this goal beats all the other options.
We can see a new wrinkle in this in a story that is beginning to get more and more play -- the issue of whether to build, with public funds, public facilities that allow Muslims to wash their feet before prayers. In a way, it is an issue of public safety. It is hard to wash your feet in a sink. Here is the opening of a recent New York Times story by Tamar Lewin, which ran with the headline "Universities Install Footbaths to Benefit Muslims, and Not Everyone Is Pleased":
When pools of water began accumulating on the floor in some restrooms at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the sinks pulling away from the walls, the problem was easy to pinpoint. On this campus, more than 10 percent of the students are Muslims, and as part of ritual ablutions required before their five-times-a-day prayers, some were washing their feet in the sinks.
The solution seemed straightforward. After discussions with the Muslim Students' Association, the university announced that it would install $25,000 foot-washing stations in several restrooms. But as a legal and political matter, that solution has not been quite so simple.
What makes this a good church-and-state or mosque-and-state story is that Lewin does a solid job of noting that this story is causing sweaty palms on the political left and the right.
As you would expect, it didn't take long for angry conservative Christians to ask a good question: Would education leaders have been as prayer friendly if the people seeking accomodation were Christians? Is it right to spend public funds to do something that helps Muslims?
You see, there are two issues here and this story manages to hint at both, at least a bit. The first question is whether the foot basins are legal. The other question is whether the school has, in some way, violated the rights of other religious believers in the past.
If you want to sense the frayed nerves in this case, note this chunk of the story (note, in particular, the groups that seem to be on different sides of this debate):
Hal Downs, president of the Michigan chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, "The university claims it's available for Western students as well, but, traditionally, Western students don't wash their feet five times day."
"They're building a structure for a particular religious tradition," Mr. Downs added, "and the Constitution says the government isn't supposed to endorse a particular religion."
The American Civil Liberties Union says the footbath issue is complex.
"Our policy is to object whenever public funds are spent on any brick and mortar component of religion," said Kary Moss, director of the Michigan Civil Liberties Union. "What makes this different, though, is that the footbaths themselves can be used by anyone, don't have any symbolic value and are not stylized in a religious way. They're in a regular restroom, and could be just as useful to a janitor filling up buckets, or someone coming off the basketball court, as to Muslim students."
So OK, civil liberty pros, what should equal access look like in this case? Should there be actual prayer facilities in public schools? Otherwise, Muslims cannot freely practice their faith. But then, once you cross that bridge, do you take similar steps for members of other faiths? What would that look like?
This is a story that deserves the coverage it is getting. But this is not the only equal-access story out there in church-state land that needs to be covered. Try to imagine if Eastern Orthodox students petitioned for a prayer space with icons. Try to imagine Pentecostal students requesting a public room in which to hold Spirit-filled, loud, lively, prayer times. Just try.