University of Michigan Installing Foot-Washing Basins for Muslim Students

This is a rush transcript from "The Big Story With John Gibson," July 30, 2007. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

JOHN GIBSON, "BIG STORY" HOST: The "Big Issue": Most of us do it at home, but some students at the University of Michigan are doing it in the school's bathrooms. I'm talking about washing their feet as part of a ritual of their faith.

Now the college has decided to build its Muslim students their own foot baths while the school pays the bill. "Big Story" correspondent Douglas Kennedy takes a closer look at the issue of "mosque" and state in America.

DOUGLAS KENNEDY, "BIG STORY" CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right, John. The question here is whether public funds can be used to build the baths. The university says yes, if the safety of students is at stake. But civil libertarians say no since they're clearly for a religious ritual.


KENNEDY (VOICE-OVER): For Muslims around the world, daily foot washing is mandated by Mohammed himself. But recently students at the University of Michigan are saying their required rinsing has become a hazard, prompting the university to step in.

(ON CAMERA): Describe what the university is doing.

TERRY GALLAGHER, UNIV. OF MICHIGAN-DEARBORN SPOKESMAN: We're currently planning renovations in two buildings on the campus to address various concerns and needs including the creation of two foot-washing stations on campus.

KENNEDY (VOICE-OVER): The two stations will be unisex and the university's student fund will foot the bill. This man calls that a foot fault.

BARRY LYNN, AMERICANS UNITED FOR SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE: I think it's a problem when the architect of a government building or government-funded university starts to accommodate the architectural changes that are demanded by students of any religious background.

KENNEDY: Barry Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He calls the foot-washing stations a blatant endorsement of one religion over others.

LYNN: It's a very dangerous road to start on. If people start to include the demands of Muslim students to change a building in one way, you can rest assured there will be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Scientology, all kinds of other students who will want the same kind of accommodations.

GALLAGHER: I think that this is a prudent reasonable accommodation to assure the health and safety of all the members of our campus.

KENNEDY: Like many colleges in the U.S., the University of Michigan has a growing Muslim student population, and administrators say some students insisted on washing their feet in their waist-high bathroom sink. The university says the practice had become dangerous to the students and unsanitary to others who use the facility. It is not a religious endorsement.

GALLAGHER: I think that we've always been an open campus, where we, you know, value the pluralism among our students and culture of respect and tolerance.

LYNN: I understand the desire to have these religious needs accommodated, but when it comes to a public university, actually changing the physical structure for foot baths for Muslims, won't baptismal fonts for Christians be next?


KENNEDY: He says if you do go down that road, there is no place for it to end. The university says they're just meeting a current need and they say, John, just looking out for the safety of their students.

GIBSON: Why wouldn't the Muslim Students' Association pay for the changes?

KENNEDY: They wanted to pay for the changes, but the university wouldn't let them. I mean, that would have created a huge conflict if they're paying for a religious symbol on a public building.

GIBSON: OK, why can't they go to the men's locker room or the women's locker room at the gym?

KENNEDY: Now this is a great question, John. But my mother saw this piece when we did it a few months ago and she said: I want them to have foot baths because I don't want people washing their feet where I'm washing my hands.

GIBSON: Well, of course, but why can't they just go to the gym? There's already showers there.

KENNEDY: There's showers there, but this is a huge campus, John. So, you know, they're going to be washing their feet somewhere.

GIBSON: Douglas Kennedy, thank you very much.

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