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Accommodations for Muslim Students at Universities

University Business, July/August 2012

Universities have long known that to increase enrollment they must cater to students’ needs. Following this strategy, some U.S. universities are accommodating Muslim students’ religious requests, but not without controversies. Among the accusations are that the accommodations show favoritism towards a particular religion, disregarding the separation of church and state at public universities.

A significant number of Muslim students study at public universities. For example, about 15 percent of incoming freshmen at the University of Michigan-Dearborn identify themselves as Muslim. The influx continues at private universities, such as Catholic University (D.C.), which has more than doubled its Muslim enrollment in 2011 from four years ago.

Universities are no longer ignoring students’ spiritual needs. For instance, Rutgers University’s flagship campus in New Brunswick, N.J. accommodates its 7,400 Jewish students by having kosher kitchens and a Jewish dormitory.

Likewise, some universities seem to realize that Muslim students’ enrollment will likely increase at campuses that accommodate their religious needs. Despite the advantages, universities usually do not provide accommodations for Muslim students until they make requests and prove that a need exists. At the forefront of the movement is the national Muslim Students Association (MSA), which has published guidelines on how students can obtain key accommodations. Local MSA chapters provide a collective voice to work for change.

One change that Muslim students have obtained at several public universities is a prayer room. Praying five times a day is a requirement in the Islamic faith, with four prayers occurring in the latter half of the day. The University of California, Berkeley has a meditation room that Muslim students and others can use for prayers. Meanwhile, students at the University of California, Davis, Henry Ford Community College (Mich.), the University of Portland (Ore.), and other public universities have exclusive prayer rooms.

The arguments against prayer rooms ignore the fact that the First Amendment also protects freedom of religion and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of accommodations, as long as they do not coerce or disrupt other students.

Interestingly, students at Benedictine University (Ill.) and Trinity University (Texas), which are private universities not bound by the First Amendment, requested and received prayer rooms. Trinity, Georgetown, and Syracuse University (N.Y.) also have Muslim chaplains. At private universities, objections included accommodating students who follow a religion other than the universities’ affiliated religion. These universities responded by stating that while they are proud of their religious heritage, they are tolerant towards other faiths, which is evident from the accommodations for Muslims. Since Muslim students must wash their feet before praying, having foot-baths in bathrooms is another common accommodation on campuses, with two dozen public universities installing them so far. For example, Minneapolis Community and Technical College noticed that bathroom floors were wet from students washing their feet in the sinks, thereby leading to floor damage and students’ possibly slipping, so the university installed foot-baths.Students at public universities objected to their tuition dollars being used for a particular religion, yet the university contended that anyone could use foot-baths to wash their feet. Also, the American Civil Liberties Union said that that foot-baths were necessary for Muslim students to practice their religion. Meanwhile, George Washington University is a private institution that installed foot-baths, but also garnered attention for another accommodation: allocating an hour a week at one of its lesser-used pools for women only. While GWU took these moves to accommodate female Muslim students, it said any woman could use the pool during the one hour.

Critics alleged that the university violated Title IX’s ban against gender discrimination because men did not have access to the pool 5% of the time. Since George Washington University receives federal funds, Title IX applies to this institution. A valid exception to Title IX may be that the university is accommodating a religious group.

Another accommodation involves making the two Muslim holy days, known as “Eid,” school holidays so students can have day-long celebrations. For example, Syracuse University has made Eid-ul-Fitr an official school holiday on its five-year calendar. Administrators initially objected on the grounds that the holiday would be religious. The university’s Muslim chaplain contended that Easter and Christmas, two religious holidays, were already on the school calendar and thereby forced the voting to be between no religious holidays or one additional holiday. The university then agreed to put Eid-ul-Fitr on its calendar.

Other universities acknowledge Muslim holidays, while still holding classes on the two Eids. They allow Muslim students to make up missed assignments and notify professors to avoid scheduling tests on the religious days.

While accommodations vary from university to university, the trend seems to be that more universities are willing to meet Muslim students’ distinct needs. By providing Muslims accommodations, these universities are putting out the welcome mat and boosting student satisfaction, thereby creating a positive image of campuses that celebrate diversity.

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