So is prayer a right or not?

Foot in Water 2For 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.

hands praying rosary 7 as m2If 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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • astorian

    In ANY case where public institutions are asked to consider people’s religious needs, the questions to be asked are the same: how difficult and/or expensive would it be to accommodate those needs, and how much of an imposition would it be to people of other religions.

    If, a high school is heavily Catholic, is it wrong for the cafeteria to serve only meatless meals on Fridays during Lent? In that case, the religious students probably COULD be accommodated with little difficulty, and with only minor inconvenience to non-Catholics (a lunch of fish sticks, cheese pizza, or spaghetti with marinara sauce isn’t going to kill anyone).

    If the student body is largely Jewish, would it be wrong for the cafeteria to keep kosher? Well, if there would be enormous expense and difficulty in renovating the kitchen to follow kosher standards, perhaps it’s not worthwhile. But if a school cafeteria HAS been kosher for some time, the inconvenience to Gentiles is minimal, and that accomodation of Jewish students bothers me not in the least.

    Now, the question is, how difficult or expensive is it to provide space and facilities for religious Muslims. Is it enough to provide a lage, private room that can be used for prayer, along with a small washing basin? If so, that seems reasonable. If much more is required, students should be notified that they’re on their own.

  • James

    My entire childhood I had fish sticks or fish sandwiches on Fridays at the public school (and not just during Lent)…in a Texas city where at that time there were very, very few Catholics. Frankly, I was an adult before I knew it had anything to do with Catholics. And it doesn’t bother me in the least that I didn’t get to have a beef enchilada instead. It just was not a big deal, and it wouldn’t bother me for my children to have fish on Fridays (or pack their own lunch instead) now. It’s not as though a fish stick can proselytize, or is alienating a right of mine.

    On the other hand, prayer is speech. Period. And that’s protected.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Well, the foot-washing stations as pointed out by the ACLU aren’t religious per-say, though they help fulfill a religious function for Muslims. It seems that this became a problem due to plumbing, not faith. Muslims were washing their feet in the sinks, and the plumbing was getting clogged and the sinks were overflowing. The answer would be to either ban foot-washing in bathrooms (and find a way to enforce it), or find a plumbing solution that enabled foot-washing (most likely the cheaper option in the long run).

    It isn’t the same as providing space for prayer, or allowing prayer in school. It certainly isn’t the same as installing icons in a room for Orthodox Christians (unless those icons can also be used as lunch trays, much in the same way the foot-washing stations can be used by janitors to fill mop-buckets).

    As for your 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.”

    Another good one is to tell conservative parents that a Pagan family had just come to you with a similar request and you’ll be happily granting both. I guarantee the results are interesting to behold!

  • Brian

    So according to the ACLU, a moment of silence in school (pretty sure no public expense is required for this) is unconstitutional, and yet building foot baths is A-OK. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out what their real objection is…

  • Shelby Meyerhoff

    I’m torn about whether the installation of footbaths should be prohibited. These are some of the questions that come to mind for me:

    Is separation of church and state meant to prohibit only government endorsement of religion, or also to prohibit government accommodation of religious practice? As Kary Moss notes, the footbaths do not endorse or promote any particular religion, nor do they endorse religiosity in general.

    If government-funded organizations spend money to accommodate religious groups and individuals, will this inevitably lead to uneven treatment of religious groups?

    Are there circumstances in which “public safety” issues should take precedence over the separation of church and state? If so, does the damage to bathrooms at the university truly constitute a substantial public safety risk?

  • Robert

    For what it’s worth, at my public university the Orthodox Christian Fellowship is given prayer-space, free, whenever we request it. We have to bring our own icons and take them out again afterwards, but when we’re in there it is indeed prayer-space with icons.

    And occasionally our prayer room has been next to another public meeting room where Pentecostals have been holding spirit-filled, loud, lively, prayer times.

    The Muslim student association also uses the same rooms for their prayers.

    Over the summer I’ve taught in an ESL program where the student body is about 1/3 Saudi Arabian. They’re provided with classrooms to hold daily prayers, and in fact the entire program’s schedule is set up to accommodate the Muslim students’ prayer schedule. Seems to me this is simply a matter of reality– if the school won’t accommodate Muslim students’ schedules, then the students will go to another school. If 1/3 of the student body were Orthodox Christians committed to praying the hours at 9am, noon and 3pm, I believe the school would accommodate them as well.

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    Playing armchair lawyer, I believe the university would not have installed the footbaths unless the Muslim students had requested them — therefore, it’s a religious use. By making it easier to practice a religion, the school is promoting the practice of religion.

    It’s like asking a public school to build a prayer labyrinth on the grounds to accommodate Christian students who like to use that in their daily worship. The labyrinth can be used by anyone or enjoyed by anyone (and does not have the same symbolic meaning for the majority of people) but it would not have been built unless the students had requested it in order to be accommodated.

  • dodi

    “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.”

    This is the kind of ignorant or disingenuous comment which, unchallenged, has got the US where it is today. The constitution doesn’t forbid endorsing (a particular) religion, it forbids establishing it…dummy!

  • Bob

    Muslim do need to have a prayer room. It is not safe with them praying in the hallways, were other students may trip over them.

  • Maureen

    Yes, but… If I had joined a religion where I had to wash my feet and pray on the ground, I would think it was my responsibility to find a place to pray that wasn’t in the way. I sure as heck wouldn’t be washing my feet where other people have to wash their hands, because I would assume that too was my responsibility to figure out a way to do that without being gross or in other people’s way.

    And yes, it’s always been my responsibility during Lent to make sure I had meatless food, or live with going hungry. It’s nice if people choose to think of me and mine when they plan menus, but it’s not their problem.

    So yeah, footbaths are a nice idea, but it does seem that footbaths were forced on the university by behavior that was _dis_respectful of others’ rights and comfort. (And gross! Athlete’s foot and ringworm in the sink! Ew!)

    You can’t have a civil society that way. You just can’t.

  • Maureen

    I’d also like to know why nobody opened a “Footbaths R Us” store, or why the local Muslim community didn’t band together to fit out a house near campus as one big huge foot washhouse.

    And why these people’s parents didn’t ask them, long before they came to the university, “How _are_ you planning to wash your feet five times a day while you’re there?”

  • tmatt

    A comment or two:

    * A major reality in church-state discussions is that silent prayer does not WORK for several forms of religion. Thus, silence is not a legal solution for all.

    * Muslim prayer traditions are meant to be practiced in Muslim cultures, where prayer can AND SHOULD mix with all of the realities of daily life. This is new territory here, needless to say.

    * Folks, if you want religious liberty, you need to try to extend it to others. That’s the law.

    The left AND the right need to hear that, at the moment.

  • Brian

    tmatt: As you noted in your post and in your comment, a story like this is of course going to produce lots of confusion for both the right & left, since it inverts many of the assumptions that are built into the “culture wars” motif of the past several decades in America.

    One might (cynically/astutely depending on your taste) suggest that clever conservatives should be looking for areas where they can pursue grievances from Ethiopian Orthodox Christian immigrants, for example, in order to avoid the racial/geographic/historical stereotypes that usually immediately arise in these issues. (It’s been commented before that “secular” Europe may be in for a bit of confusion in the near future as non-white Christian missionaries begin to step up attempts to re-convert the continent. But I suspect that the European left will be able to convince themselves that such a movement is blowback from colonialism, and will oppose it on those grounds.)

  • Carl

    Tempest in a teapot. Why not just have the school say, “OK, our sinks are getting broken. That’s bad. So, we’re going to go to the Muslim students’ association, and ask them to raise the money for foot baths. If they can cough up the dough in a reasonable amount of time, we’ll accept it as a gift and use the money to install the baths. If they can’t raise the money after a semester or two, then we’ll advise Muslim students to bring a bucket with them when they move onto campus. In either event, breaking the sinks is henceforth against the rules and minor some penalty will be levied against violators. (The funds raised will be used for sink repair.)”

    If a student association raises the money itself, I don’t see why the school should have a problem with that.

  • Jerry

    I’ve not noticed any of the coverage of this issue nor the comments here addressing what I think is the central question – clashing rights. If a Christian group uses an empty room to conduct a prayer meeting, it does not infringe on the rights of atheists. A foot washing facility in a bathroom does not impinge on my right to have dirty feet. Eating fish on Friday does not impinge on my right to eat junk food instead.

    Sure, there are grey areas, but I’d like to see more stories focusing on that principle and going from there.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    Jerry wrote:

    If a Christian group uses an empty room to conduct a prayer meeting, it does not infringe on the rights of atheists. A foot washing facility in a bathroom does not impinge on my right to have dirty feet.

    This seems to me to be the central issue as well, along with the question of multi-use facilities. If a room were built in a stadium with preinstalled icons for Orthodox worship, that would be a problem precisely because it isn’t really multiuse (like footbaths). A room built for general religious use (like interfaith spaces in airports) where temporary religious technologies can be installed, or that has installed footbaths and a compass to tell direction, does not promote a style of religiosity, nor does it infringe on those without one. It simply safely accomodates a growing demand of users. This issue need not be any more complicated than that.

  • Brian

    To the last few commenters: You all seem to have perfectly fine and reasonable attitudes, but your views are not those that the ACLU has pushed for the past few decades. The ACLU doesn’t even want “moments of silence” in schools, apparently on the off chance that someone will pray (or be around those who pray) during the specified time. Given the history, do you see why certain people might be a tad bitter, and a tad suspicious, about what this apparent change of heart says about the true motives of the ACLU and related groups?

  • Bob

    Look up Tayammum (Dry Ablution). Muslim can prepare themselves for prayer without water. So why the demand now for foot baths other than to push themselves and their religion on others.

  • Bob

    Muslims keep telling us we don’t understand islam. Maybe their right. If the schools and airports knew that Dry Ablution is acceptable then they may not being going through the expense of accommodating a religious whim.

  • tmatt

    More comments:

    Bob: Whim is a very inaccurate word. It is a strong tradition. Just because a layman can say the last rites in Catholicism does not mean that it is not a stronger tradition that priests do it.


    See my comment above on the weakness of “moments of silence” in US law. The goal is equality of access (something, IMHO, the ACLU sometimes forgets) and silence is not equal access for faiths that have no tradition of SILENT prayer.

    But back to the STORY folks…. This was a solid NYTs story on a complex topic.

  • Jerry

    Maybe those who think they know what the ACLU attitude is about religion should look to see what it really is by looking at the very large number of cases where the ACLU has sued to allow free expression of religion: and to actually read the ACLU statement about religion which includes items such as this:

    First, children are free to pray in public schools either as individuals or in groups. In addition, whenever a teacher opens up an assignment topic for the children’s choice (such as which book to read, what to discuss in a talk to the class, or which song to sing), students may choose religious themes – and the ACLU has protected their right to do so. (Learn More) In addition, schools may offer courses about religion or about the Bible or other religious works.

  • Opie

    The problem is that I don’t necessarily agree that my religious freedoms should be limited to what the ACLU is willing to support. They are entitled to their opinion on what the Constitution means, but theirs is not by default the correct opinion. I certainly wouldn’t trust them with guarding my rights, or I’d only wind up with what they decided was good enough for me.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I trust the ACLU would have no problem with a Christian group having a prayer service at the footbath while washing their feet? Or they could have the footbath for baptisms–I have a feeling the university wouldn’t provide a bptismal font. (I just finish reading Dark Journey, Deep Grace by Roy Ratcliffe, who baptized Jeffrey Dahmer. Rev. Ratcliffe had to go through hoops to get an appropriate means to baptize Jeffrey Dahmer, but non-Christian groups could get any amenity they wanted.)

    Anyone up for a communion service at the footbath?

  • Bob


    I strongly disagree with you. If dry ablution is an acceptable practice than it is a “whim”. It is selfesh to impose one’s own personnel preferences on the rest of the community and at their expense. Are you saying that dry ablution is not part of their tradition? Were is your source?

  • tmatt

    Two points, again. OK, three:

    * When water is available, it is to be used.

    * This is the kind of entanglement in ritual by the state that officials have to avoid, if at all possible.

    * Back to journalism. The doctrinal discussions on this thread are now over.

  • tmatt


    Bob is done on this thread.

    Let’s get back to a discussion of the New York Times article and mainstream coverage of religion news. Take your theological arguments elsewhere.

  • Brian

    tmatt: I confess that I don’t really understand your point about “moments of silence” and whether they’re allowed as an analogy to this story. Some (most?) students won’t use them to pray, and some will. With these footbaths, some students will use them for religion-related purposes, and some (most, depending on the school’s demographics) won’t. Given our pluralistic society, no single issue is going to accomodate everyone’s religion, or even be applicable at all for most. But given that this story involves construction (i.e., $$$) for religious purposes that would otherwise not be undertaken, I think it is differentiated from things like “moments of silence” (we’re long past the point where actual prayer is permitted) and religious use of common areas that already exist and are available for general use.

    I agree with your first paragraph in your post, and would even extend it–both traditional sides in church-state issues should ask “What if the religion were Islam?” If the secular/atheist side would be deferential to Muslims, they should be similarly deferential to Christians. If the Christian side would limit Muslims, they should accept similar limits on themselves.

  • tmatt


    You have not solved a church-state problem when you have solved it in a way that discriminates against one religion over another. Period. A “moment of silence” is a classic example.

    That’s all.

    The more important issue than silence, which is an old issue, is equal access. That’s what matters in this case.

  • Bill Wiens

    A similar story is brewing in Canada, Vancouver’s University of British Columbia is not only constructing oblation stations for Muslim students, but also separate restrooms for GLBT students. See the story here.

  • Mike

    How can muslims clean themselves in a place that has been made unclean by contact with kafirs?

  • plunge

    “So according to the ACLU, a moment of silence in school (pretty sure no public expense is required for this) is unconstitutional, and yet building foot baths is A-OK. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out what their real objection is. . .”

    This really speaks to a real lack of thought on this issue.

    Moments of silence are nonsensical on their face. If you believe that the school day is taking an important minute away from religious believers that they desperately need back in order to hold special prayers, then the obvious solution is simply to start the school day one minute later: then religious believers have their minute and can and pray any way they want!

    But for some reason, that solution isn’t good enough.

    Why isn’t it good enough? Because the point of the moment isn’t to accommodate those that want to pray: they can pray all they want in any way they want during any free time. The point of the moment is to force those that aren’t interested to participate in some way, if only to just stand there while their “betters” do the “right thing.”

    Offering foot basins to accommodate an otherwise problematic religious need isn’t even remotely the same thing.

  • Cole

    plunge, I agree, to make the analogy go through, there would have to be some ceremony where the teacher leads the class in the ritual ablutions and the prayer, and where the non-Muslims have to stand there until the ceremony is finished.

    I mean, the basic difference between ‘individuals engage in religious practice on their own’ and ‘state-appointed authority figure leads others in religious practice’ is extremely obvious. And yet so many of these discussions turn on ignoring this difference.

  • xJane

    I think most facilities (corporate office buildings, schools public & private, anywhere people will spend a majority of their day) should have private spaces where one can go on a break to enjoy quiet, meditate, or pray. I had an officemate who was Muslim and, after she no longer needed it for this purpose, kept a key to the breast-pumping-room so that she could pray in there (the powers which are knew about this and were okay with her keeping the key). She also told me that, so long as she did not make herself ritually impure, she could pray the twice required before lunch, then eat and go home for the other two. Apparently, there are ways around this without needing a footbath (she came up with this after having trouble washing her feet in the sinks).

    I like the suggestion put forth that the Muslim students who so wanted the foot baths ought to contribute monetarily to it, since it would not have been built but for them.