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Does crucifix offend Muslim students?

A legal complaint filed by a non-Muslim against Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, is being strongly denounced by both Catholics and Muslims.

The issue is whether Muslim students are being discriminated against by the university's display of Catholic imagery and symbolism.

"I regret very much that our Muslim students have been used as pawns in a manufactured controversy," said John Garvey, president of Catholic University.

The complaint against the university was filed by legal activist Professor John Banzhaf, known in recent years for his multiple "fat lawsuits" against fast food restaurants, including McDonald's and KFC.

A law professor at George Washington University's Law School, Banzhaf teaches a unique "Legal Activism" course that has been dubbed "suing for credit."

Students in the course "become public interest lawyers by bringing their own legal actions."

The 60-page formal legal complaint filed with the DC Office of Human Rights by Banzhaf claims that the university was illegally denying equal access to facilities and services for Muslim students on the basis of their religion.

The complaint charged that "usually, or at least frequently, these Muslim students at CUA find that they must perform their prayers surrounded by symbols of Catholicism."

The presence of a crucifix, image of Jesus or picture of the Pope is something "which many Muslim students find inappropriate and not especially conducive to praying according to their very different religious beliefs," the complaint said.

The complaint also said some Muslim students must pray in the "school's chapels and at the cathedral that looms over the entire campus--the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception--which is "hardly a place where students of a very different religion are likely to feel very comfortable."

Banzhaf observed that the university's Columbus School of Law has a Jewish student association and argued that the university is discriminating against Muslim students because it does not sponsor a formal Muslim association or provide a separate center for Muslim activities.

He also raised a separate issue in his filing with the Human Rights council, arguing that the introduction of single-sex dormitories on campus "constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex against female students."

"Banzhaf has created the perception that it is our Muslim students themselves who are offended by the symbols of Catholicism on our campus, and that they object to the absence of worship space set aside specifically for them," university president Garvey said.

"The fact is that no Muslim student at Catholic University has registered a complaint with the university about the exercise of their religion on campus."

Garvey also noted that an October 28 Washington Post article revealed that Banzhaf himself had not received any complaints from Muslim students at Catholic University.

Garvey said that a major reason Muslims attend CUA is "the fact that our community, because of its own outward expressions of Catholic faith, makes them feel comfortable living their faith among us."

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"The evidence bears this out," he said. "Since 2007 our Muslim enrollment has more than doubled, from 56 to 122."

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the crucifix complaint "a non-issue."

"Muslims pray all the time in various locations," Hooper told the Catholic News Agency. "A Muslim can pray anywhere, practically, from a bus station to a classroom to a cubicle at work."

Hooper acknowledged that distracting images are present in many locations, but said that they should not prevent Muslims from focusing on their prayers.

"These kinds of things occur every day," he said. "Particularly at a Catholic institution, you would assume that there would be Catholic symbols in locations throughout the university."

Hooper does believe that Muslim students at Catholic University should be permitted to have an organization on campus if other religious groups are allowed to. But he believes that the issue can be dealt with through dialogue rather than legal action.

"American Muslims have very good relations with the Catholic community," he said.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, also defended Catholic University.

"There is no requirement in the Constitution that can compel a Catholic university, or any institution for that matter with a faith-based connection, to change its doctrines, its practices or its procedures and beliefs to accommodate a student of another faith," Sekulow told Sean Hannity in an October 27 Fox News interview.

CUA President Garvey reassured Muslim students that they are welcome at Catholic University. "Our Catholic teaching instructs us to embrace our fellow human beings of all faith traditions," he said. "They enrich us with their presence and help to promote inter-religious and intercultural understanding."
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Title Annotation:Faith: Religion and the world
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Date:Dec 16, 2011
Words:768
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