College Brings Footbaths, and Religious Worries
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
In Minneapolis, a proposal to install foot baths for Muslim students has provoked a national debate. The Minneapolis Community and Technical College is considering whether to install the fixtures after a Muslim student slipped and hit her head. She was trying to wash her feet in a bathroom sink as part of her religious practice. After a column about the proposal appeared in a local paper, the item sparked a so-called action alert by at least one conservative group. College president Phillip Davis says he's been inundated with e-mail and phone calls.
Mr. PHILLIP DAVIS (President, Minnesota Technical and Community College): We've had about 3,000 e-mail messages to the college and about 300 or 400 voicemail messages. The messages are often similar in their characterization or concern about church-state separation and characterize the discussion we've had about foot-washing basins as an improper action by a public institution.
NORRIS: Saying that your institution was trying to accommodate one specific religious group.
Mr. DAVIS: Yes. I think the column unfortunately mischaracterized our plans. We're keenly aware of the importance of the constitutional separation between church and state, and as a government agency, we make all efforts to make certain that we don't do anything to promote or favor one religion or another, but of course we do have people of many faiths and many cultural experiences at the college, and like any organization, any business, we try to make certain that our practices are respectful.
NORRIS: Just take us back, if you could. Why did you decide to install the foot baths? Was it primarily because of that student who slipped and hit her head, or did it go beyond that?
Mr. DAVIS: Well, actually no decision has been made as yet, but over the last three or four years as the college has seen an increase in the number of students who wash their feet during the day, we had the corresponding concerns for their safety and for the safety of people who follow behind them in the restrooms. The sinks in those restrooms are not designed with foot-washing in mind, and so those who'd wash their feet and those who follow behind are often at some risk.
NORRIS: How many Muslim students attend the community and technical college there?
Mr. DAVIS: You know, we estimate that we have no over 500 Muslim students attending Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
NORRIS: And what percentage of the overall student body does that represent?
Mr. DAVIS: Oh, it's about 5 percent of the overall student body.
NORRIS: Is - people from the outside are now looking at this and participating in what looks to be a robust debate about this. They seem to ask if there might be another alternative beyond actually installing these footbaths. Is it possible that you could install benches or ground-level faucets or do something different that would not appear that the university was actually taking specific steps to accommodate one group, one specific group?
Mr. DAVIS: Oh, I'm certain there are many alternatives. In fact for the last three or four years, our practice has been to install no particular facilities but rather to work with students and try and see to it that they weren't using the sinks to wash their feet.
Unfortunately, that's not - we've not been successful to the extent that we continue to have students engage in that practice and of course the corresponding spillage.
NORRIS: How do you see this case? What is the tension here?
Mr. DAVIS: What seems to have provoked the greatest distress is the sense or the claim that the college was somehow antagonistic toward Christianity while favoring Islam, and I think that's - from our perspective, that's not the case. We're simply looking at ways to make certain that all users of our restrooms are safe.
But I have to mention that many of the e-mail messages and voicemail messages also invoke images of the War in Iraq, of 9/11 and other characterizations of Muslims...
NORRIS: The response, the e-mails that you're getting, what does that tell you about the climate right now in and around your campus?
Mr. DAVIS: Well, I think the climate at the campus has been a very positive one. I think the climate, at least in the context of what I'm getting in e-mail responses, and they're coming not just from Minneapolis or from the twin cities or even Minnesota but from around the country, suggest that people are concerned that Christianity is not being treated fairly, and I think at the same time, there's also concern about what's happening in our relationship to the Muslim world.
NORRIS: You are president of an academic institution, so I imagine you're probably looking for a teachable moment in this.
Mr. DAVIS: Well, I think the teachable moment is about the principles of our American democracy and our constitution about treating each other with respect and dignity even while we hold different points of view, but I think the most important thing that we can learn is we're not enemies, and you know, this isn't a religious war. This is an opportunity to learn about how the founders made certain that the constitution protected our free exercise of our religious beliefs. Really our fundamental democratic principles are here on display, and it's an opportunity for all of us to learn about it.
NORRIS: President Davis, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Mr. DAVIS: Thank you for the invitation, Michele.
NORRIS: That was Phillip Davis. He's the president of Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He spoke to us from the twin cities.
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