School to provide Muslim students with foot baths


By Andrea Billups
DEARBORN, Mich. — Plans to construct two foot-washing stations continue at the University of Michigan at Dearborn amid concerns that such action would constitute an establishment of religion by the public university.

The 8,700-student school near Detroit, which begins fall classes Tuesday, came under criticism in June when it announced that it would spend about $25,000 on the two foot-washing areas that were requested as an accommodation by a Muslim Student Association's task force. The foot baths come while the state is in a budget crisis and tuition and fees have risen at all of the state's public universities, up 7.9 percent at the Dearborn campus alone.

Data from a study of entering freshmen suggest that about 10 percent of students at the university are Muslim, and many have in the past used bathroom sinks for the foot washing, called an ablution, which Islam requires as a purity ritual before its five-times-daily prayers.

The cleansing practice prompted concerns from other students and administrators that it was not only unsanitary but also created a safety hazard by making the lavatory floors wet. The new foot-washing stations, built at ground level, are part of a renovation project at two locations on campus and will be paid for with money from the school's general fund.

The foot baths, while benefiting Muslim students, are open for use by all students and will be located in two new unisex bathrooms that will be renovated on campus.

The university, in a statement posted on its Web site, said the foot baths reflect a "strong commitment to a pluralistic society" and "a reflection of our values of respect, tolerance and safe accommodation of student needs."

School spokesman Terry Gallagher said the school, a part of the University of Michigan system, has received calls about the foot baths from many outside the university and state, but only about a half-dozen calls from the school's 36,000 alumni. So far, the school has not lost money from donors and, as far as he knows, no one has challenged the foot baths legally.

Zuhdi Jasser, a Phoenix physician who serves as chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, said he is surprised there has not been more outrage.

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