When Majed Afana needs to pray while attending classes at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, the 19-year-old Muslim usually will duck into the campus library’s bathroom, strip off his shoes, and awkwardly strain to wash his feet in the sink.
Water often pools at his feet, he says, making it slippery to balance on one foot. Some of the sinks have started to pull away from the wall, in part from years of use by others like him—who, according to their faith, must clean their feet prior to praying five times a day. So when the school recently approved installing two footbaths in a pair of new unisex bathrooms, to accommodate the needs of both male and female Muslim students, the local Islamic community started planning ways to raise the estimated $25,000 cost.
But the university told them not to bother—it would pay for the footbaths.
The university says it’s tapping student infrastructure fees for the unisex bathrooms, which will also have diaper-changing stations and facilities for mothers to nurse infants, because this is an issue of the school trying to make its bathrooms safer and improve its plumbing—not endorsing religion or promoting Islam.
And while the fees are part of the school’s general fund, the money is paid by students, not taxpayers, and is often used for campus maintenance and general construction. The plan, however, has raised the ire of critics, who have been flocking to area conservative Web logs and Michigan radio talk shows to rail against the plan. They 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 Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.
Yet groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union who are usually fierce advocates of separating church and state are giving the plan an approving nod.