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University toes the line

Michigan Muslim students' ablutions raise safety questions. But then, when the shoe is on the other foot ...

August 18, 2007

It doesn't involve a creche or a menorah. It has nothing to do with the phrase "under God." It's a simple plan to install foot baths in a couple of bathrooms on a college campus -- but it has sparked a blogosphere frenzy over church and state.

At the University of Michigan at Dearborn, one in 10 students is Muslim. Those who pray five times a day wash their feet as part of wudu, or ablution before prayer. After reports of puddles on bathroom floors and sinks separating from walls -- and after a student fell while washing her feet in a sink at another school -- the university sensibly decided to install some foot baths. Precedent was on its side: Eastern Michigan University at Ypsilanti had installed foot baths without a hitch.

The university at Dearborn was right to approach the puddles as a health and safety issue, not a religious one. Foot baths don't promote Islam over other faiths. Those who perform wudu are going to do so regardless -- if all the bathroom sinks broke, they would probably head to the drinking fountains before prayer.

Which isn't to say that the school gives no consideration to religion. As at many universities nationwide, students at Dearborn can reschedule finals if they fall on religious holidays; there is a "reflection room" for all faiths; and the dining halls provide halal food for Muslims and make dietary accommodations for Catholic and Jewish students during Lent and Passover.

But the university's decision seemed more culturally paranoid than culturally aware. It's not inappropriate to ask students to take responsibility for the hazards they may generate. Campus officials could have posted notices asking those using the sinks in unconventional ways to clean up afterward. Indeed, if the university had cautioned Muslim students in particular, it could have used the same justification it's using for the foot baths: It's not about religion, it's about health and safety.

Islam is very flexible, and it wouldn't have hurt for university officials to discuss these problems with Muslim students beforehand. In many Islamic traditions, it's permissible in wudu to wipe a damp hand over besocked feet. In fact, all Muslims are encouraged not to splash or waste water. Just holding to that basic recommendation could have helped solve Dearborn's puddle problems for -- let's do the math here -- zero dollars.

That's slightly more cost-effective than the $25,000 the university plans to pay for two foot baths.

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