.- A formal legal complaint filed against Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. is being strongly denounced by both Catholics and Muslims, who deny that 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.
Garvey said in an Oct. 28 statement that the charges were “completely without foundation.”
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.”
Banzhaf and his students have become well-known for their “hundreds of innovative public interest legal actions.”
The 60-page formal legal complaint filed with the D.C. 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 says.
The complaint also says that 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.”
This charge reiterates a previous legal complaint that Banzhaf filed against the university several months ago for moving to single-sex dormitories for freshman students. That complaint is currently pending before the Office of Human Rights.
“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 John 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 Oct. 28 Washington Post article revealed that Banzhaf himself had not received any complaints from Muslim students at Catholic University but had instead based his complaint on a Washington Post article from Dec. 2010.
“Contrary to the impression Mr. Banzhaf would like to create, the December 2010 Post article spoke in overwhelmingly positive terms about the experience of Muslim students at Catholic University, and explained why they are attracted to us,” said Garvey.
“A considerable part of the attraction stems from the fact that our community, because of its own outward expressions of Catholic faith, makes them feel comfortable living their faith among us.”
“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 CNA. “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 noted.
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 Oct. 27 Fox News interview.
In his Oct. 28 statement, 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 inter-cultural understanding.”