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.
Read the entire article on the Touchstone Magazine website (new window will open).