A self-described legal activist has recently filed a complaint with the Washington D.C. Office of Human Rights against the Catholic University of America. He is John Banzhaf, a public interest law professor at George Washington University Law School. Banzhaf’s complaint alleges that Catholic University, a private religious academic institution, is illegally discriminating against its Muslim students by not giving them their own prayer rooms and thus requiring them to pray in rooms adorned with “offensive” Catholic imagery.
The complaint objects that Muslims must pray at the school’s chapels “and at the cathedral that looms over the entire campus – the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.” Moreover, it alleges that for no valid reason the university does not officially sanction a Muslim student group.
Banzhaf told Fox News:
It shouldn’t be too difficult to set aside a small room where Muslims can pray without having to stare up and be looked down upon by a cross of Jesus.
They do have to pray five times a day and to be sitting there trying to do Muslim prayers with a big cross looking down or a picture of Jesus or a picture of the Pope is not very conductive to their religion.
Banzhaf said that news of a surge during the last several years in Muslim enrollment at Catholic University, reported by the Washington Post in 2010, piqued his curiosity. He decided to look into the university’s treatment of its Muslim students, which he found wanting.
Banzhaf decided to undertake his lawfare jihad against Catholic University on his own initiative, not on behalf of any Muslim students requesting his help. In fact, as it turns out, no Muslim student at Catholic University has registered a complaint with the university about their inability to exercise their religious faith on campus, according to the university’s president. Banzhaf does not deny this, but he proceeded with filing his complaint anyway.
Banzhaf would have been thrown out of federal court if he had chosen that forum to bring his lawsuit, because he lacked standing. That is because he is not filing his complaint as a lawyer representing aggrieved Muslim students at Catholic University, but rather in the capacity of the plaintiff challenging alleged discrimination against Muslim students at a university with which he has no connection.
Thus, Banzhaf chose the path of least resistance. He filed his complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights pursuant to the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, one of the strictest anti-discrimination laws in the country. Any person may file with the Office of Human Rights a complaint of a violation of the provisions of the D.C. law, including a complaint of general discrimination, unrelated to a specific person or instance.
Banzhaf’s complaint of illegal discrimination against Catholic University’s Muslim students is meritless. And it is on top of another complaint he brought against the same religious university for its decision to eliminate all co-ed dorms on campus, which seems at variance with his professed concern for Muslim sensibilities.
Yet Catholic University has to waste money responding in writing to the charges, which the D.C. Office of Human Rights will waste taxpayers’ money investigating. Instead, the charges should be dismissed out of hand. Moreover, if found to be as frivolous as they appear to be, all legal costs incurred by Catholic University in defending against the charges should be paid by the public interest professor out of his own pocket.
There is no constitutional or federal law prohibiting a private religious university from operating according to its religious beliefs on ecclesiastical matters and to display its religious icons as it sees fit. In fact, any attempt by the government at any level – federal, state or local – to interfere would very likely constitute an unconstitutional abridgement of the rights of the university under the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
The name Catholic University pretty much gives away its religious orientation to anyone considering applying there. Moreover, Catholic University is not telling its Muslim students that they cannot pray and otherwise observe their own faith on campus. They can pray in their own dorm rooms which are reportedly free of any Catholic symbols, if the public spaces with Catholic imagery bother them.
However, Catholic University is well within its rights if it refuses to take down its own religious symbols in the classrooms or other public spaces within the university campus, or to spend money to construct extra public rooms in order to create a non-denominational space in an avowedly Catholic institution. According to the managing editor of Catholic Portal at the Patheos website, Catholic University is a Pontifical University, created by the Holy See and directly under his authority, which means that it “cannot be true to itself while creating ‘Jesus-free’ spaces.”
If a non-Catholic decides to attend a private Catholic university, it is the non-Catholic student who has to adjust to the Catholic nature of the university, not the other way around. In the case of Muslim students, if they don’t feel comfortable praying on campus, there are three Islamic centers within a couple of miles where they can go.
Even under the D.C. Human Rights Act, there is a carve-out for organizations, including educational organizations, with a religious affiliation:
“Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to bar any religious or political organization, or any organization operated for charitable or educational purposes, which is operated, supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious or political organization, from limiting employment, or admission to or giving preference to persons of the same religion or political persuasion as is calculated by the organization to promote the religious or political principles for which it is established or maintained.” (Sec. 2-1401.03 (b))
“Notwithstanding any other provision of the laws of the District of Columbia, it shall not be an unlawful discriminatory practice in the District of Columbia for any educational institution that is affiliated with a religious organization or closely associated with the tenets of a religious organization to deny, restrict, abridge, or condition –
(A) The use of any fund, service, facility, or benefit;” (Sec. 2-1402.41 (3)(A))
In this particular case, Muslim students on campus are not the ones complaining. Some have voiced their displeasure with Banzhaf’s action, in which he manufactured a controversy that did not exist with the Catholic University Muslim student community.
Indeed, even the normally litigious Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) appears to be distancing itself from Banzhaf’s lawsuit because it does not want to be tarred with something so absurd. Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s communications director, called the crucifix complaint “a non-issue.” He went on to say that “at a Catholic institution, you would assume that there would be Catholic symbols in locations throughout the university.”
Hooper is right for once. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day. But CAIR’s own lawfare strategy of bringing or threatening lawsuits to challenge any perceived instance of Islamophobia is partly to blame. It breeds even more frivolous, publicity-seeking lawsuits, using bogus anti-Muslim discrimination charges to serve in this case a left-wing agenda.
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