The Catholic University of America is, um, a Catholic university. So–surprise, surprise–its Washington, DC campus, like those of most other Catholic institutions of higher learning, has a lot of Catholic stuff around. Chapels, priests and nuns on the faculty, crucifixes in the classrooms, statues of the saints, and a gigantic church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which, while technically not part of Catholic University, is the site of its graduation and other formal ceremonies. Some 85 percent of Catholic’s 3,600 undergraduates self-identify as Catholics, and to top it off, the university has a papal charter, granted by Pope Leo XIII in 1887.
So you would think that if you weren’t a Catholic but you decided to enroll at Catholic University anyway, you’d have a pretty good idea of what you were in for. But nooo–the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights is currently considering a 60-page complaint alleging that Catholic’s 122 Muslim students (out of a total student population, including graduate students, of just under 7,000) feel discriminated against because they are obliged to perform their daily prayers “surrounded by Catholic symbols which are incongruous with their religion.” Those symbols include (according to the complaint) “a wooden crucifix, paintings of Jesus, pictures of priests and theologians which many Muslim students find inappropriate.”Particularly offensive (according to the complaint) is the basilica, which the complaint describes as a “cathedral that looms over the entire campus.” The complaint faults Catholic University for not setting up a prayer room devoid of all Christian imagery where Muslim students can fulfill their religious obligations.
Not a single Muslim student at Catholic signed onto the complaint, however, and when the campus newspaper, the Tower, interviewed Muslim students there, it was unable to find any with anything negative to say about the university’s treatment of them. The complaint is actually the brainchild of John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University (also in the District of Columbia) who has become more famous for his threatened litigation against institutions that he finds politically objectionable than for his teaching. In years past, Banzhaf’s objects of opprobrium were soft drinks and fast food. During the early 2000she threatened to sue the Seattle school district for renewing a vending-machine contract with Coca-Cola, and he later sent letters to school committee members in Massachusetts warning them of their “inevitable involvement” in lawsuits over the contents of their schools’ vending machines. A former student of Banzhafwrested a $12.5 million settlement from the McDonald’s burger chain in 2002 in a class-action lawsuit alleging that McDonald’s had failed to disclose to vegetarians that its French fries were precooked in animal fat.
Banzhaf has lately turned his legal animus against Catholic University. In June he filed another complaint with the D.C. Human Rights Commission, this time challenging the decision of Catholic’s new president, John Garvey, to restore single-sex dormitories to the campus. Garvey announced that he was phasing out co-ed dorms starting this fall in order to discourage the booze and hookup culture that is a feature of many college campuses. Banzhaf likened Garvey’s action to the “separate but equal” racial policies of many Southern states before the Supreme Court struck those policies down. Single-sex dorms also play a role in Banzhaf’s latest complaint against Catholic, which contains an allegation of particular discrimination against women that goes beyond his earlier separate-but-equal claim.
But Banzhaf’s main argument is against the university’s all-pervasive Catholic iconography. Banzhaf concedes that technically speaking, Catholic has no obligation to provide prayer rooms to Muslims free of Catholic religious symbols. “It may not be illegal, but it suggests they are acting improperly and probably with malice,” he told Fox News in an interview. “They [Muslims] do have to pray five times a day, they have to look around for empty classrooms and to be sitting there with a big cross looking down or a picture of Jesus or a picture of the Pope is not very conductive to their religion.”
In other words, Banzhaf concedes that the facts might not support any legal claim that Catholic University is discriminating against Muslims–but he is counting on the Human Rights Commission of an ultra-liberal city to support his complaint anyway. It might help if he could find a flesh-and-blood Muslim or two with some on-the-ground stories of bias. For one thing, the number of Muslim undergraduate, graduate, and law students at Catholic has more than doubled over the past four years, from 56 in 2007 to this fall’s 122. Second, Catholic’s Muslim students seem to have few complaints. One of them, Wiaam Al Salmi, told the Tower, “The community here is very respectful of other religions and I feel free to openly practice it.” Al Salmi, who recently founded a campus Arab American Association, pointed out that Catholics and Muslims have a natural bond in their conservative moral outlook. “Even though it’s a Catholic school, a lot of its teachings are very similar to Islam,” Al Salmi told the Tower. “It teaches respect, community service, love, worship etc. which are things that Islam also teaches.” Banzhaf might have trouble finding much Islamic support for his crusade against single-sex dorms.
Banzhaf’s beef against Catholic University might be best summed up by this blog post by Stephen Bainbridge, a law professor at UCLA: “In my humble but First Amendment-protected opinion, one begins to suspect a pattern of anti-Catholic bias on the professor’s part. But then again he hates everything that makes life worth living from alcohol to tobacco to decadent food, so why not throw in religion too?”