About three months ago, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Student Union (a department of the University’s Student Affairs Division) announced that it would be constructing a “Meditation Space” within the Union building.

But there’s an added twist. In order to address “some basic needs and desires voiced by the Muslim community” (i.e. wanting a space where they can pray five times a day) the Union has also decided to install foot washing basins in the Meditation Room for Islamic students to use while performing the Wudu ritual.

Normally, I don’t complain when other students engage in religious worship. But there are several problems with this proposal. The first is that this Meditation Room is being built expressly for the purpose of alleviating some of the difficulties involved with Muslim students’ religious practices. So, this raises the question, should publicly-funded institutions provide financial and material assistance to religious groups in order to facilitate religious worship? The First Amendment would seem to indicate a “no” answer to this question.  Indeed, UNC’s own practices also seem to indicate that public institutions should not involve themselves in such matters.  There currently exist no similar facilities on campus where Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc., etc. students can worship.  Many students groups will utilize the normal classroom-reservation procedures if they desire to hold a worship service on campus, but there are no permanent facilities on campus where these students can hold regular worship services. This begs the question, what makes the Muslim students so special and, why can’t the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) continue making room reservations just like every other religious group on campus?  

Also consider the plight of secular students. How are they supposed to “meditate” in a room adorned with religious symbols or a room where other students are worshiping?

There’s also the issue of the room itself. Under the current plan, the Meditation Room will only provide special accommodations for Muslims. In an email, Union administrators said that the presence of the wash basin in the room was because of “safety issues” and the self-evident danger that a bowl of water poses to the campus community if left unattended.  But accommodations for other groups’ religious practices are not being made. To take an example, many Christian rituals involve the use of candles, yet no special accommodations are being made for such practices. Given the presence of a wash basin/fire bucket in the room, you would think that such accommodations would be relatively easy to make. Yet none are in the offing.  It is clear that this room is being constructed for the benefit of a very narrow (and very small) group.

It’s also worth considering how UNC has treated other religious groups in the past. In 2008, the university rather famously purged the campus libraries of their Christmas trees. At the time, Sarah Michalak, Associate Provost of University Libraries, declared that “it didn’t seem right to celebrate one set of customs.” So Christmas trees (hardly the most religious of symbols) are too offensive to stand in the library for a few weeks, but it’s okay to build Islamic prayer chapels in the Union. This, of course, is the textbook definition of a double-standard. Maybe if the ornaments on the Christmas tree were little foot basins, they’d be back in business.

It is clear that this room is being built solely to facilitate the religious worship of campus Muslims. Such accommodating treatment is regularly denied to other religious groups on campus, raising serious questions as to why UNC’s Muslim students are accorded such generous accommodations. Aside from the First Amendment issues involved, the university’s brazen double-standard is deeply troubling.

Mark Seelinger Jr. :: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill :: Chapel Hill, North Carolina :: @marcseelinger