Muslim Foothold At Public College Is Firm — So Far

Muslim Foothold At Public College Is Firm — So Far

Debbie Schlussel has done some reporting on the situation of the Muslim foot baths at UM Dearborn (“So Long Church/State Separation: University of Michigan to Fund Muslim Footbaths”).

Dearborn Underground also took a look at this earlier in the week (“UM-Dearborn Teaches How One Foot Washes the Other”).

I was amazed to learn in Debbie’s post that the University Vice Chancellor, Robert G. Behrens, was the only individual responsible for funding the Muslim foot baths. According to Debbie, UM–Dearborn spokesman Terry Gallagher “confirmed that…Behrens made the decision to install the footbaths. Behrens was the sole decisionmaker. He did not have to go before a committee of University Regents to get the approval or consult with anyone else.”

This sounds awfully strange to me. I don’t get how a Vice Chancellor can make a decision to spend money from the University’s general fund for any building project, especially one requiring retaining an outside architect’s services, without first having to obtain approval of the University Regents. (Not to mention one also involving compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act: Behrens must have consulted with the University’s legal counsel). Or does the Vice Chancellor have his own discretionary budget, upon which he can draw if need be to facilitate, say, a religious accommodation? Even one that violates both State and Federal Constitutions?

On a more practical plane, I can understand why the Vice Chancellor did not go to the Regents, knowing as he must have that his decision would be objectionable to lots of people if it became known beforehand. If he went to the Board, there’d have to be discussion in a public meeting, where he would have to face questions about the legality of the decision and the necessity of installing Muslim foot baths, and these discussions would have been preserved in the minutes and available now for folks like us to review. This way, it was all but a fait accompli before we knew what hit us. I say “all but” because the baths haven’t been installed yet.

UM’s decision goes way past the “reasonable accommodation” standard required under our laws. This is not accommodating a religion, but facilitating one. This is not permitting a religious practice, but affirmatively assisting one. Past religious-accomodation disputes that were a lot less cut-and-dried than this one have made huge headlines, entailing epic battles, and were fought all the way to the Supreme Court. And to think that now we no longer have Justice O’Connor shuttling her way back and forth from one legal church-state standard to the other.

But this whole story is being vastly ignored by the local press. I think that’s because the press likes to report conflict and drama, and it’s hard to get conflict when one side is getting all its own way without opposition. If a man punches his wife it just isn’t news. It’s only news when she hits him back. So far, UM and the Muslim students haven’t encountered any conflict.

The best way to change that and get the University’s attention is by filing a lawsuit. But that’s a fairly forbidding prospect for isolated citizens without lots of resources. And we all know the ACLU isn’t going to stand up for the right side on this one. That’s what UM was counting on when they tried this.

According to Debbie Schlussel, the University says it’s prepared to defend against a lawsuit if one is filed. Personally, I would love to see them try. And if a lawsuit ever were filed, the press would have to pay attention (if not necessarily full and fair attention).

In spite of UM’s claim to being ready to defend this nonsense if a lawsuit is filed, I actually believe that a lawsuit would make them drop their whole project as indefensible. If that’s so, all that’s needed to get UM in that defensive posture where they belong is: a Michigan plaintiff, a local lawyer who understands civil rights laws, (or better yet, a national advocacy group), and a few thousand bucks to get things started.

Let’s hope someone finds all that before construction begins

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