Public schools go dark on Saturdays and Sundays, the traditional days of worship for Christians and Jews. And on Christmas, class will not be in session. But when schools provide foot baths for Muslims, critics cry foul. So what is acceptable in a country that has a wall between church and state?
While some religious accommodations are constitutional and to be encouraged, some cross the line and promote particular beliefs.
For example, public schools should not spend taxpayer money to promote religious practices. They should not be buying prayer rugs, rosary beads, prayer rooms, crucifixes, a mikvah, baptismal fonts, altars, loudspeakers for the Muslim call to prayer, veils, or religious icons. The Constitution bars these actions not because there is anything wrong with them, but because it is not the government's business.
Nor should governments and public schools be promoting religious practices. We do not want public schools to post notices encouraging students to attend either mass or a Dianetics meeting, to observe daily prayers, to be baptized at age 8, to wear a turban, to cross themselves when they enter a church, or to wear a yarmulke. Religious practices should be encouraged by parents, religious communities and each student, not public schools or government bureaucrats.
So what about foot baths used by Muslims?
A controversy has developed over whether it is constitutional for public schools and universities to install foot baths that are used by Muslims to wash before prayers. Offering five daily prayers is one of the five recognized "pillars" of Islam. Muslims are taught that before conducting prayers they should wash themselves, including their feet. Though not all Muslims perform this cleansing, for many it is a necessary preparation for prayers.
Observant Muslims, attending public schools or universities in the USA, often use sinks in public restrooms to wash their hands and feet. These sinks do not become ritual objects because people use them to wash. There apparently have been complaints by other students about this practice. Some have complained that they do not like washing their hands in the same sink that others have used to wash their feet. Others have complained that water spilled from this activity makes restroom floors wet and slippery. In at least one case, it seems a woman slipped and fell, injuring herself.
So what can be done about this situation that would respect the free exercise of religion as well as honor the Establishment Clause's prohibition on government funding of religious practices?
Some schools have proposed to install "foot baths" in restrooms. This typically would include a water spigot about 18 inches above the floor with a small basin and drain to catch the runoff. (There would be no signs identifying the purpose, and it could be used by anyone, including a janitor filling a bucket.)
Would it be constitutional for a school to pay for this foot bath?