Friday, November 16, 2007

Equal accommodation 

This article from our campus newspaper is fairly persuasive that a room to allow Muslim students the opportunity to wash their feet before prayers is less controversial than it seems. The front page of the print edition has a very large picture of a student washing his feet, but the reporting inside is thorough in making the point that there is equal accommodation of all religions. The foot sink was installed in the student union -- not a state building, technically -- in 2004, though accommodations have been made since 2001.
"The purpose of our building is to serve student organizations, and as part of freedom of religion, students have the ability to create their own student organizations based upon religious tenants," [Ed Bouffard, Atwood Center director] said. "Our function is to serve the group, not to serve the religion. And if their group gathers around a particular context, that is their choice, and we serve those groups."

"One of the big issues has been unfair treatment of Christian groups relevant to Muslim groups," he said. "Sometimes people frame it as, 'well gee, you are catering to Muslim students, and Christians can't do that.' Well in the case of the foot sink, it is done for safety. They don't pray in that room, they wash their feet in that room, and that is a cultural difference. I think here we certainly serve both groups."

Bouffard said about 12 Christian groups use Atwood's facilities, and in 2006, Christian groups made 454 building reservations compared to 55 for Muslim groups.

A Christian organization also recently conducted a 24-hour prayer room, and Bouffard said Native American students have sometimes requested to burn sage to cleanse rooms. In those cases, fire alarms were temporarily turned off to allow the burning. Certain Pagan and Wiccan groups also meet in Atwood regularly.
It's a pretty compelling case Ed makes. One question, on equal accommodation, seems to be cared to by the numbers on number of Christian building reservations (those can be anything from a booth to hand out circulars to advertise to a prayer group.) The other, state funds, is met by the use of a student union paid for from activity fees. I'm a little uncomfortable with that, as students don't really have a choice on paying for it (short of not attending a public university.) But I don't know that this is a major objection.

Anyway, compliments to the reporter who wrote this piece, Chad Eldred. It was very informative.

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