Sunday, October 30, 2011

Muslim Students Face Hardship at Catholic University

John Banzhaf, an attorney and professor at the George Washington University Law School filed a complaint against the Catholic University of America (CUA) for violating the human rights of Muslim students. In a 60-page complaint against the private university, Banzhaf charged that the CUA infringes on Muslim students’ rights by not allowing them to form a Muslim student group and by not providing them rooms without Christian symbols for their daily prayers. This investigation contends that Muslim students must perform their prayers surrounded by symbols of Catholicism – a wooden crucifix, paintings of Jesus, pictures of priests, etc.

This case is important in evaluating the complex relationship between the establishment as well as the free exercise clause and the operation of private organizations, specifically a university. The first issue to examine is whether the Muslim students have a right to charter their own student organization. If the court were to remain consistent with it’s ruling in Westside Community School vs Mergens (1990), then the court would mandate that the CUA should allow the formation of the student organization. Because the school allows other religious groups (not just Catholics) to meet, then it should allow Muslim student unions as well. The university cannot set different standards for different groups of people. The issue would be one of neutrality rather than endorsement; if the university refused to let a Muslim religious group use facilities open to others, then it would demonstrate hostility toward one specific religion. Furthermore, just as in Westside, University students are mature and are far less impressionable than elementary school students, and can therefore decide what student religious organizations they would like to participate in.

The second issue at stake is whether or not the fact that the Muslim students are compelled to perform their prayers surrounded by Catholic symbols violates their free exercise of religion. If I were conducting this investigation, I would explore whether there are even rooms on the CUA campus that are devoid of religious icons. Although this question is not addressed in any article I have read on this controversy, in a 2010 interview with National Public Radio, university president John Garvey acknowledged that they don’t set aside prayer rooms for Muslim students. Instead, the CUA makes chapels and classrooms available so the Muslim students can pray. In terms of this issue, I think it is important to recognize that the CUA is a private, Catholic university. Students who apply to this university are aware of both of these characteristics. Therefore, I think the university has done a fair job in accommodating Muslim prayer by opening up classrooms and chapels to these students. If the University were to designate specific rooms for only Muslim students, I would see that as an endorsement of a particular faith. Thereafter, the CUA would also have to designate specific rooms so that other religious groups could congregate, in order to give all religious organizations equal access. It is also important to recognize that as a Catholic university, the school maintains a right to operate according to Catholic practices- which may include hanging wooden crucifixes or pictures of Jesus. Consequently, if these Muslim students feel uncomfortable with these religious symbols, they should have made a different choice when applying to schools. Therefore, I believe on a basic level that praying in rooms filled with Catholic symbols does not violate their free exercise of religion. Perhaps only opening a limited number of rooms is done as a security measure. Thus, opening up a few rooms, does not place a significant burden on these students.

7 comments:

Allison S said...

I agree with Sophie wholeheartedly. The university is a private Catholic institution that has made accommodations for students of different faiths. By allowing classrooms and chapels to be used for other religions the school has shown that it allows the free exercise of religions. However, I think taking down crucifixes or any other Christian symbol for these Muslim students would be seen as favoring one religion over another. Also, as Sophie stated, these students knew what they signed up for when they decided to attend this Catholic university. Overall I think that the university has taken the appropriate actions in response to the issue at hand.

Harry R. said...

I agree with Sophie on both points. The University has created a limited public forum, so if they allow any religious groups to form, they must allow all religious groups to form. They therefore cannot disallow the formation of a Muslim group based solely on their beliefs. The University has no responsibility to provide a room devoid of religious symbols, for they do not make such accommodations for any other groups. It is a Catholic university and, as such, they can adorn their classrooms with whatever religious symbols they want.

Ally R said...

I agree with Sophie in both aspects of her argument. The university cannot pick and choose which religions may be active on campus and must choose to allow all, or no, religious clubs form within the student body. Regarding the religious symbols in the classroom, these students knew they were applying to a Catholic university, which I would think, implies that symbolism of the religious would be shown throughout campus. The neutrality of this campus, is not by having no religion present, but by solely endorsing Catholicism. Asking for a room without these religious symbols would be favoring Muslims and therefore throwing off the neutrality of the university.

Molly Veelguski said...

Sophie presents a good argument and I agree with her on both issues. The students that attend the university were aware of the religious affiliation of the school itself. In my opinion, the school has made appropriate accommodations for religions allowing the students to have free exercise of religion. Also, I agree with the idea that taking down the religious symbols would be favoring the muslim students. They are a catholic university and these students should have been more aware of the school they planned to attend before creating an ordeal.

Christy said...

I definitely agree that the Catholic University is a private institution, which allows them to create rules and guidlines for the campus groups. The university is allowing the Muslim students to meet on campus and gives the students a few rooms to pray in, which I think it more than enough. I agree with Sophie that these students knew they were applying to and attending a Catholic university and they must accept the religious aspects that come with that.

Liz Petrillo said...

I feel as though it doesn't matter what the religion is of the students attending the Catholic University of America. The students chose to attend a Catholic school and I believe it is unacceptable to ask for a non-religous room. It's a private institution, and honestly what is the attraction of a Catholic university if you don't practice Catholicism? This university shouldn't have to be neutral to any religion or than Catholicism or try to be secular because it's a Catholic school, and should be allowed to put a cross up or a painting of jesus where ever they desire.

Grace R said...

I agree with Sophie that this is a Catholic university. When applying to this school, it is completely obvious that this is a Catholic based private institution. However, like sophie said, they do accommodate Muslim student by allowing them to use open classrooms and chapels for prayer. I believe that the university have done all they can to both enforce their Christian beliefs while still allotting students the opportunity to practice their own religions.