Critics are contesting what they describe as the conversion of a Minnesota community college meditation room into a de facto mosque -- with the help of Normandale Community College staff who erected a barrier separating the sexes to accommodate Muslim prayer. Muslim students are the room’s primary users.
A December blog item by the Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten -- a former senior fellow at a Minnesota think tank “focusing on conservative and free-market ideas” who this spring skewered another Minnesota community college for its plans to install a foot-washing basin to accommodate Islamic pre-prayer rituals -- is highly critical of Normandale’s administration for “facilitating the room’s Islamization.”
Kersten's blog stated: “The college’s building crew erected the barrier separating men’s and women’s sections, according to Ralph Anderson, dean of student affairs. College officials also posted signs at the room’s entrance asking students to remove shoes -- a Muslim custom before prayers. This was ‘basically a courtesy to Muslim students,’ Anderson said.”
Kersten also noted that, in her visit to the room, she saw an arrow indicating the direction of Mecca, a posted schedule for the five daily prayers, and Islamic literature and shawls. "One thing was missing from the meditation room: evidence of any faith but Islam," she wrote.
In e-mail messages, Anderson confirmed that college staff installed the gender barrier, and that a sign in the meditation room -- housed in a 27-year- old racquetball court -- asked users to remove their shoes. Since Kersten's column, Normandale has posted a new policy relative to the room’s use stipulating, among other things, that “[s]igns, postings and displays by users and others are not permitted inside or outside the Meditation Space” and that “[a]ll personal items taken into the Meditation Space or left on the shelves outside must be removed and taken with you as you leave.” The gender barrier has been taken down.
“Normandale created a meditation space approximately two years ago to allow faculty, staff or students, regardless of faith or belief, a quiet space for reflection, tranquility and, if they so chose, prayer,” Anderson said in writing. He noted that he had monitored the meditation room’s previous location in a fine arts building several times weekly “to assure that it was appropriate for anyone.” Remodeling and expansion forced the relocation of the meditation room to the more remote former racquetball court over the summer.
“Though the space has primarily been used by many of the Islamic students who attend Normandale, the space was always intended for use by any interested Normandale faculty, staff or students. As the space is in both a temporary and somewhat remote location on campus, it has not been monitored as well as it should have been. As a result, through casual practice, and not official campus policy, it is perceived as solely for Muslim prayer and not available for use for other purposes,” Anderson wrote. Approximately 400 Muslim students attend Normandale, which has about 9,200 credit students.
"[It] is important that if we are to have a meditation space it must be available for its intended use by all. Normandale has immediately moved to assure that this occurs," Anderson wrote.
The faculty adviser and student leader for Normandale’s Muslim Student Association did not return requests for comment. Nor did several college faculty contacted. Richard Katskee, assistant legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that the college “has gone well beyond anything that’s constitutionally permissible.”
“Allowing students of one faith to effectively take over any university space as essentially a permanent religious facility involves the college endorsing religion and endorsing that faith and that’s clearly unconstitutional,” Katskee said. The college has “then compounded the problem” by taking “steps to enforce religious requirements on behalf of one group,” he said.
More and more colleges are adding meditation spaces. And Normandale is not the first college to come under scrutiny for what its "neutral" space has evolved into. Articles printed in the George Mason University student newspaper last year described “the seeming takeover of the meditation space by Muslims,” not only because of physical alterations to the room (including the placement of screens separating men from women) but also because some non-Muslim students reported that while they were interested in using the room, they felt intimidated.
"Our experience was that there seemed to be a certain group of students who were using it more than others, and I think people generally tend to think of it informally as a room where Muslim students would go," said Daniel Walsch, a George Mason spokesman. There too, the dividers have since been taken down. Officials at the Virginia university are working to spread the message that the room is open to everyone, Walsch said.
On that note, a St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial from December 27 praises Normandale Community College for taking steps to stress that same message. ("We can work these things out. Normandale seems to be doing so," the editorial states).
Though at Normandale, the issue may be moot after this spring when the old racquetball court will be unavailable due to remodeling.
"[I]t may be very difficult,” Anderson wrote, “to find a meditation room due to the fact that the campus has grown by over 25 percent in student enrollment over the past five years and space utilization on the campus is already by far the highest of any college or university in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.”