Wednesday, April 25, 2007

It'll violate your rights just a little 

Several posts by others today on the StarTribune's defense of Minneapolis Community and Technical College's purchase of foot-bathing facilities for its Muslim students. See for example PowerLine. Mitch asks a very good question hypothetically of MCTC's administration:
Since washing feet - the feet of others, in this case - has a tradition in Christianity that was practiced by Christ himself, I�m wondering; would I, a Christian, be able to wash feet in this foot bath (following Christ�s example, I�d be washing the feet of others rather than my own - a typically-Christian model of self-abnegation, if you know what I mean)?
I suspect I know the answer, and there'd be a way for MCTC to differentiate re-enactment of the Last Supper, an annual event, with the five-times-daily washing required of observant Muslims. So perhaps Christians would get access only on Maundy Thursday. To be frank, that'd be enough for me.

But the part that I've been wondering about is in the STrib editorial,
If MCTC were setting some unusual precedent, we might worry. But it's not. St. Cloud State University, the University of Minnesota-Duluth and at least a dozen other colleges around the country have installed small foot-washing facilities for their devout Muslim students -- at modest cost and often using student fees rather than state revenues.
If student activity fees were purely voluntary payments, distributed democratically by a student government, I might agree with the distinction the editors make. But this is a false dichotomy. It takes as little as 7% of the student body to impose fees, and student government elections are typically with less participation than that. After voting a fee, the university takes the money from students and deposits it into an account for them. So the state is involved in enforcing the fee, and the university does have oversight. I think the distinction between student fees and state revenues is less than one would believe.

At SCSU, there are Friday prayers for Muslims in the student union; it is my assumption that to do so requires the washing of feet, and perhaps a facility is provided. It's not clear to me if it is provided by the Muslim Students Association, or the Arab Students Association, or by student government more generally. There are 17 student organizations on campus that are religious, most of them Christian. The question of who paid for the washing basin is not terribly important. That it's just a few dollars, and it comes only from student activity fees, doesn't help us understand the lack of equal access to religious practice on our campuses. The question worth asking, like Mitch does, is whether each enjoy equal access to the fees collected by the state on behalf of a student government that would not pass the test of being representative even if you had Jimmy Carter judging them. I have not heard any reports like this, so I assume nothing has happened, but I do not know. (If you are an SCSU student with an opinion on this and wish to remain anonymous, drop an email at comments-at-scsuscholars-dot-com)

It's not an idle question. FIRE has a list of cases in its past that cover religious liberty on college campuses. Most, though not all -- LSU once tried to not recognize a Muslim student group because it had the requirement that its members be Muslim -- have pointed at restrictions on freedom of religious expression of Christianity. It is that backdrop that causes questions to arise when we find dollars spent on public university campuses in support of religious practices of others.

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