First Amendment

Footbaths Spur Constitutional Objections

Accommodations for Muslim students at public universities are raising legal questions about the separation of church and state.

The University of Michigan at Dearborn is one of more than a dozen universities that have footbaths in restrooms for Muslims to wash their feet before prayers, the New York Times reports. Other school districts are weighing whether to designate prayer rooms for Muslims, serve halal food or give time off for Muslim holidays.

Hal Downs, president of the Michigan chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the newspaper the footbaths were built to support a religious tradition. “And the Constitution says the government isn’t supposed to endorse a particular religion,” he said.

Kary Moss, director of the Michigan Civil Liberties Union, was more measured in her comments.

“Our policy is to object whenever public funds are spent on any brick and mortar component of religion,” Moss told the Times. “What makes this different, though, is that the footbaths themselves can be used by anyone, don’t have any symbolic value and are not stylized in a religious way. They’re in a regular restroom, and could be just as useful to a janitor filling up buckets, or someone coming off the basketball court, as to Muslim students.”

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