By Katherine Kersten
Cultural clashes involving Islam have recently made headlines in Minnesota. At the airport, some Muslim taxi drivers refuse to transport passengers carrying alcohol; at Target stores, some Muslim cashiers won't scan pork products. Now there's a new point of friction: Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
Its officials say the college, a public institution, has a strict policy of not promoting religion or favoring one religion over another. "The Constitution prevents us from doing this in any form," says Dianna Cusick, director of legal affairs.
But that seems to depend on your religion.
Where Christianity is concerned, the college goes to great lengths to avoid any hint of what the courts call "entanglement" or support of the church. Yet the college is planning to install facilities for Muslims to use in preparing for daily prayers, an apparent first at a public institution in Minnesota.
Separation of church and state is clearest at the college during the Christmas season. A memo from Cusick and President Phil Davis, dated Nov. 28, 2006, exhorted supervisors to banish any public display of holiday cheer: "As we head into the holiday season ... "all public offices and areas should refrain from displays that may represent to our students, employees or the public that the college is promoting any particular religion." Departments considering sending out holiday cards, the memo added, should avoid cards "that appear to promote any particular religious holiday."
Last year, college authorities caught one rule-breaker red-handed. A coffee cart that sells drinks and snacks played holiday music "tied to Christmas," and "complaints and concerns" were raised, according to a faculty e-mail. College authorities quickly quashed the practice.
They appear to take a very different attitude toward Islam. Welcome and accommodation are the order of the day for the college's more than 500 Muslim students. The college has worked with local Muslim leaders to ensure that these students' prayer needs and concerns are adequately addressed, Davis told me.
Muslim prayer is an increasingly controversial issue. Many Muslim students use restroom sinks to wash their feet before prayer. Other students have complained, and one Muslim student fell and injured herself while lifting her foot out of a sink.
Some local Muslim leaders have advised the college staff that washing is not a required practice for students under the circumstances, according to Davis. Nevertheless, he says, he wants to facilitate it for interested students. "It's like when someone comes to your home, you want to be hospitable," Davis told me. "We have new members in our community coming here; we want to be hospitable."
So the college is making plans to use taxpayer funds to install facilities for ritual foot-washing. Staff members are researching options, and a school official will visit a community college in Illinois to view such facilities while attending a conference nearby. College facilities staff members are expected to present a proposal this spring.
In Davis' view, the foot-washing plan does not constitute promotion or support of religion. "The foot-washing facilities are not about religion, they are about customer service and public safety," he says. He sees no significant difference between using public funds to construct prayer-related facilities for Muslim students and the cafeteria's provision of a fish option for Christian students during Lent.
College officials claim that the restrictions on Christmas displays apply to employees who are state agents, and so are subject to more restrictions, while students are free to express their religious beliefs.
But where the Muslim prayer facilities are concerned, college authorities themselves are consulting with religious leaders, researching other schools, and using taxpayer money to make improvements to facilitate one group's prayer.
Issues surrounding the intersection of church and state and religious accommodation are complex. But the college's treatment of Christianity and Islam seems to reflect a double standard.
It's hard to imagine the college researching and paying for special modifications to the college to facilitate Christian rituals. And the "safety" justification? Imagine if a particularly strict group of Christian students found it necessary to sometimes baptize others in the restroom sinks. Would the school build them a baptism basin because a student hit his head on a sink?