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John C. "Chuck" Chalberg on Making Room for Prayer Rugs on a Secular Campus
It was somehow fitting that my suburban community college was embroiled in a religious controversy at the height of our annual “winter festival” season. Thanksgiving, of course, survives as Thanksgiving on our campus, even though too many among us have no deity to thank or neglect to thank the one we barely remember. Christmas, to be fair, survives as well, but it has not survived in the official parlance of a state school.
As a result, from sometime in early December until students finish their final exams (in time to celebrate, dare it be said, Christmas), our campus is home to an essentially secular winter festival, if one celebrated with pagan rites.
A Place to Pray
Actually, the story begins in the late winter, when a small group of students approached the college administration with a request: Could they have a place to pray? Their petition was not entirely new and not necessarily out of line. The school has long had an active InterVarsity Fellowship which meets and prays weekly in a campus classroom. But this particular request was different: Would the administration set aside a permanent space for prayer?
The students in question were largely Somali Muslims. Their request was understandable, given their need to pray five times daily. A simple denial of their petition would have been equally understandable, given innumerable Supreme Court decisions and innumerable campus policies that have gone to great lengths to separate church from state.
But instead of saying “no,” the administration compromised. The school would not designate any space for a specific religion, but it would permit a generic “meditation room.”
Such a “room” was created by closing off a portion of a hallway. The decision itself reflected an administrative desire to close off any debate on the subject as well. The administration acted, and that was that. It did not offer even so much as an announcement to the effect that the school now housed a “meditation room,” much less encourage a discussion of its merits and demerits.
Just how generic was this room supposed to be? Officials are mum as to their instructions to the students. But the transformation from quite generic to quite specific, or from meditation room to mini-mosque, was fairly rapid. First a sign went up admonishing anyone who entered this makeshift “room” to remove his shoes, as is the “tradition” when “meditating.”
Then came reports of wet and slippery floors in a nearby restroom. It seems that Muslim students were washing their feet in sinks and toilets as part of their pre-prayer ritual.
Soon stories began to circulate around campus that non-Muslim students were being discouraged from entering the space, which at some point also acquired a divider, the better to separate males from females. No doubt this is also traditional in “meditation rooms.”
In any case, when spring term ended, the room was dismantled. This was not done because of student protests or administrative second thoughts. It was simply that this portion of the campus was scheduled for remodeling. And that, many thought, was that. Our little experiment in religious accommodation, official doctrines of church-state separation notwithstanding, seemed to be over.
Not so. Come fall semester, the “meditation room” was reborn in the college’s only remaining racquetball court. As if to signal the permanence of the move, a full carpet was glued to the court floor. Soon colorful prayer rugs could be seen scattered about. Then another divider appeared. And, of course, the “remove your shoes” request was affixed to the outside window.
The De Facto Mosque
Katherine Kersten, a Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist, learned of the room and decided to investigate. A look into it revealed much, including things that weren’t there. Among the missing items were chairs. Apparently, sitting on a chair while meditating is not traditional.
Its walls did include a number of flyers, every one of which was Muslim-grounded. Prominent among them was a Muslim prayer schedule. Another contained the following line: “Jews and Christians are enemies of Allah.”
When Kersten asked a dean about this flyer, he ventured that he would “probably” have removed it, if it were actually there, and if he had seen it. He added that he only would have taken such action during “off-hours” so as not to disturb anyone’s meditation. And the divider? He had no comment. Could such separation be squared with official policy concerning gender equity? Again, no comment.
As might be expected, Kersten’s column generated a good deal of discussion, not to mention a brief firestorm or two. The usual suspects, chief among them the ACLU, quickly leaped into the fray. So did any number of my colleagues. The college president, who had only been on the job for a few months, informed us that the court was “unusable” for racquetball (which it wasn’t) and that the article contained many “inaccuracies” (none of which he bothered to name). The essence of his response was that Kersten’s labeling of the space as a “de facto mosque” was itself inaccurate, not to mention unfair.
One could quarrel with this label or that one. What is undeniable is that the space was initiated by Muslim students and remade by Muslim students. Whether it was a mini-mosque or a de facto mosque or just a highly unusual racquetball court, it became a space of, by, and for Muslim students, as well as a space in which a non-Muslim student would have been uncomfortable, if not unwelcome. In fact, after her column ran, Kersten learned from a Catholic student that she had entered the room, rosary in hand, only to be told to leave.
The reaction of many faculty members to the column was stunning as well. While the original column contained nary a loaded adjective, Kersten was characterized as “less than human,” “venomous,” “mean-spirited,” and “xenophobic” (the last courtesy of a sociologist, of course). To be fair, Kersten did have her defenders, but overall, the division among the faculty involved in the email debate ran about two-to-one against her.
What’s even more interesting is that many of those who were critical of the column have well-established campus reputations for being both secular and on the political left. Why would they be defending such an obvious violation of separation of church and state? Why indeed? But they were. Here multiculturalism trumped the church-state divide. Here true colors stood revealed.
Lovers & Haters
Why the shift in priorities? Better than a century ago, G. K. Chesterton offered an answer in an essay titled “The Neglect of Christmas.” He was not shocked that some people hated Christmas. “Everything that is really lovable can be hated.”
But more than that was going on then—and now. Behind this hatred of Christmas was a “hatred of Christianity.” Chesterton did not mention any haters by name, but he did note that they all seemed to have one thing in common, namely, their claim of an “all-embracing love of all religions.”
Precisely. Well, almost precisely. In practice, that “all-embracing love” did not—and does not—seem to stretch far enough to include a love of Christianity. If anything, the reverse is closer to the truth. The recent events on our campus indicate that Chesterton was right, that behind such claims of love is hate.
Not long ago I learned that the same administration that approved and then turned a blind eye to the Muslim “meditation room” ordered that our Phi Theta Kappa chapter cut all ties with a program called Christmas Child. The program had our college honors students help put together packages of toys and clothing for Third World countries. Included in these packages, if the receiving country approved, was a card explaining the Christmas story.
This was enough to put an administrator on the prowl. That prowl led to an Internet search, which revealed that someone in India had received the package, read the card, and subsequently converted to Christianity, and that this conversion caused great disruption in his family.
This Christmas story was enough to lead our administration to order our PTK chapter to sever any connection with the Christmas Child initiative. This same administration, by the way, approved a $1,500 appropriation of student activities money to fund an Eid dinner for Muslim students on the grounds that this was a cultural, and not a religious, event.
The lengths to which some (whether they be avowed secularists or officious bureaucrats) will go to separate (and not to separate) church from state can be truly stunning. By the same token, the lengths to which some (whether they be haters of Christianity or lovers of all religions or both) will go to excuse de facto mosques within a state institution are equally stunning.
One can think of no comparable Jewish room or Lutheran room or Catholic room existing in a public school before, much less after, all of the Supreme Court decisions of the last half-century mandating that “wall” of separation between church and state.
And the status of the “meditation room” today? Remember that leap of the ACLU into the fray? Well, its leap led the administration to jump—and fast. Gone are the prayer rugs, the divider, the flyers, and the “off with your shoes” command. In their place are now a few chairs.
But the “meditation room” itself remains. It’s now officially home to everything from thoughts of holistic healing to the practice of yoga. At least, that’s what has been posted next to the door where one is forced to bow one’s head before entering.
Bow one’s head? Is a religious purpose still at work after all this? Not really. It’s just that the room is still the only usable campus racquetball court, and the door into all such courts is what it is.
This is too bad. And not just for would-be racquetball players. You see, the court is in a remote corner of the campus. And the room, minus all of the accoutrements of a mosque, is still used pretty much exclusively by Muslim students.
If only such a space, complete with a transparent Plexiglas side, were located in the middle of the campus. Then the entire student body, not to mention the faculty, would at least have occasion to see some among us taking our religion seriously. And that would be far from a bad thing in a school where winter festivaling is continuing to work against Christmas.