***Update***: There were a few errors in this piece regarding the names of schools and their public/private status when I originally posted it. I think they’ve been corrected now.
A couple years ago, George Mason University was in the news because it seemed to be giving preferential treatment to Muslim students. It seemed odd that a university would make such concessions.
At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Muslim students using a “meditation space” laid out Muslim prayer rugs and separated men and women in accordance with their Islamic beliefs.
Critics insist that such efforts are giving Islamic followers preferential treatment over other faiths.
“Plumbing? You must be kidding. That’s an after-the-fact justification for something that is being done for the purpose of meeting a religious demand,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington.
“You start permanently changing your architecture for one religious group, you have to do it for all. After all, what’s the difference between a foot bath used as part of a ritual and a fountain that can be used for a baptism?” asked Lynn.
“Considering there are 2,000 different religious groups in America, that’s a very slippery slope.”
Now, George Washington University — a private school in Washington, D.C. — is offering “female-only swim hours“:
Last week, the Muslim Students’ Association and the University opened up “Sisters’ Splash,” a female-only hour at the pool.
Every week, GW plans to close the HelWell pool to men and will cover the glass door with a dark tarp, giving female Muslim students the chance to swim at their leisure. The University also hired a female lifeguard to be on duty for each week’s event.
Aliya Karim, the social chair of the MSA’s women’s group, said the organization made the effort to coordinate the swimming hour so fellow Muslims would feel comfortable in the pool.
“The girls should be able to swim here,” [Valdez Williams, the operations manager of the gym] said. “We will not penalize them because of their religious beliefs.”
Or are they offering special treatment to students of a particular faith?
My friend Shelley Mountjoy is a student at GMU and worries that this sort of bending-over-backward may be permissible but it’s bad policy:
The problem with religious accommodation on public colleges (besides the first amendment, that is) is that it builds up the idea that religion should be immune from criticism. All of a sudden when someone mentions needing x, y, or z for their religion there seems to be a perceived need to bend over backwards to accommodate. Later we use our imagination to think up some legitimate basis for the change and all of a sudden what was a religious accommodation is a-okay.
I worry how far this will go.
I don’t think this is the same thing as adding additional food choices to the cafeteria menu to accommodate students who are vegetarian for religious reasons. Anyone can eat the food. It’s adding more options, not taking anything away.
This just seems like something that could get out of control.
When does it stop and who makes that decision? Which religious groups get the special treatment and which ones don’t? Is anyone at the school willing to answer those questions?
Should we expect Muslim-only dorms to be built soon?
Shelley also points out that Harvard University did something similar a couple years ago when they offered female-only gym hours so that Muslim women could work out without the presence of men.
That experiment had its critics, too:
Harvard computer-science professor Harry Lewis wrote in Boston Globe the university was being hypocritical since it upheld gender equality under other circumstances, but decided that Islam’s needs trumped other values.
I’m not a completely insensitive jerk here. I can understand why GW would want to give Muslim women this special access — it’s good PR for them. Plus, they’re reaching out to a minority and that’s usually a good thing.
But I’m eagerly awaiting the moment another religious group demands special access to something on campus and gets rejected. What a story that will be…