Footbaths for Muslims Provoke Michigan Campus Outcry

DEARBORN, Mich. – When University of Michigan (UM)-Dearborn officials decided to install $25,000 foot-washing stations in their restrooms, they unleashed a flood of controversy centered on the proper place of religion – and Islam – in a public school.

Muslims comprise more than 10 percent of the student body at UM-Dearborn. As part of their five-times-daily prayers, they are required to wash their feet. Some students responded by washing their feet in the sink. When the puddles on the floor became a nuisance, the administration decided to solve the problem by installing footbaths.

However, news of the campus’s decision provoked a campus-wide outcry when the word got out last spring. The first protests came from a local columnist, who accused the administration of setting a double standard after they stopped a campus coffee cart from playing Christian music not long before. Shortly thereafter, a conservative Christian group sent an action alert that spawned 3,000 E-mails and 600 voicemails to the university President Phil Davis and other legislators.

After a legal briefing, the board decided installing footbaths did not violate separation of church and state. They will have no religious decoration and will be available for use by anyone on the campus. Officially, the university treated them as a health and safety measure. Davis says they hope to have a plan prepared by the next academic year.

More than a dozen schools in the country already have footbaths in place, including George Mason University in Virginia and Eastern Michigan University.

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