The Catholic University of America

Nov. 28, 2011

Muslim Students at The Catholic University of America

WASHINGTON (CNS) – A law professor at a local university recently filed a complaint with the District of Columbia’s Office of Human Rights, claiming that The Catholic University of America discriminated against Muslim students.

This came as something of a surprise to us.

Last year, The Washington Post reported that the Muslim population at Catholic University had grown from 41 to 91 students in three years, and that the students had a positive experience. That story was picked up on National Public Radio and elsewhere. Since then, our Muslim population has increased to 122.

No matter. The law professor complained that Muslim students “must perform their prayers surrounded by symbols of Catholicism – e.g., a wooden crucifix, paintings of Jesus, pictures of priests and theologians, etc. – which many Muslim students find inappropriate.”

Worse, some “must do their meditation in (or near) … ‘the cathedral that looms over the entire campus – the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception,’ – hardly a place where (Muslim) students … are likely to feel very comfortable.”

There is some truth in these observations.

Our undergraduate population is 81 percent Catholic. Though we have chapels in a number of places on campus, and Masses frequently during the day, we do not set aside worship space for other faiths. We do not (as some Catholic universities do) hire chaplains of other faiths. Nor do we have on the undergraduate level officially sponsored and supported non-Catholic religious organizations.

We make no bones – in our marketing and in our life on campus – that we are The Catholic University of America.

But it is entirely consistent with all this that we welcome Muslim students and students of all other faiths to our university. Our Catholic teaching instructs us to embrace our fellow human beings of all faith traditions. They enrich us with their presence and help to promote interreligious dialogue and intercultural understanding.
Here is the interesting part. As last year’s Post story noted, we have an atmosphere that appeals to our Muslim students, particularly those who are religiously observant.

At public universities, the First Amendment requires that we take no account of religion. At most private universities, it is treated as a private matter and something that is slightly uncomfortable to talk about.

But at Catholic University, there is nothing strange about fasting during Ramadan or praying five times a day or covering your head. Our students fast during Lent and pray daily; nuns who study here cover their heads. Our single-sex residence halls are appealing to more traditionally religious parents and students.

Muslim and Catholic students are able to talk about these things and to form friendships that embrace their shared religious commitments – and their differences.

The law professor who filed the proceeding against us had to confess that none of our students had joined in his complaint.

One of them, speaking to the student newspaper, said, “I’m not sure where he got” the idea that “Muslims can’t pray in a room that displays Catholic symbols. … It is not true.”

All this says something important about the state of religious liberty in modern American society. There is a danger in trying to translate religious ideas into secular values.

The local law in Washington, D.C., allows almost anyone to file a complaint with the Office of Human Rights – even someone who doesn’t understand the religion of the group that he is trying to protect.

The human rights office focuses much of its attention on the right to equality and the evil of discrimination.

Those are very important concerns. But we could treat Muslims equally with Catholics by withdrawing support from both.

There is an aphorism in liberal political theory that says that “the right is prior to the good.” The idea is that, in a modern society, people cannot agree on questions of value (good and bad, right and wrong). Therefore, the organizing principle should be to give people as much freedom (the right) as possible.

The problem with this ideology is that it can’t explain why the Constitution of the United States elevates some freedoms above others.

We celebrate religious freedom (and not, say, the freedom to go trout fishing or practice ophthalmology) because the people who wrote the Constitution thought that it was important to know, love and serve God, and that the government shouldn’t interfere with efforts to do this.

We should listen to religious people (and not their self-appointed defenders) in deciding what accommodations are necessary.

In today’s struggles to protect religious liberty, this little vignette is a reminder that people of all faiths are on the same side.


More Columns by John Garvey