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Atheist Group Questions College's Prayer Spaces

Does the existence of a chapel and prayer room on a public university campus run afoul of laws separating church and state?

A secular group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, thinks so. On March 28, the Wisconsin-based nonprofit announced it was reaching out to the University of Iowa and its president, Bruce Harreld, over a pair of recently-established Muslim prayer rooms on the university's Iowa City campus.

Creating the prayer spaces for Muslim students and faculty had been on the agenda for some time, student government vice president Tom Rocklin told the Iowa City Press-Citizen in February. The prayer rooms provide a space for campus Muslims to observe Salah, the practice of praying five times daily.

The school further accommodated its Muslim students and faculty by furnishing separate places for men and women, as per Islamic law. But anyone can use the rooms, Rocklin told the Press-Citizen.

“These rooms are certainly going to be used primarily by Muslim students," Rocklin said, "but they’re not limited to be used by Muslim students."

Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney for the FFRF, said his organization believes the college violated the first amendment's Establishment Clause by setting aside the space for Muslims. Religious rules, like segregating men and women and having people remove their shoes, cannot legally apply to public property, Elliot wrote in a letter to Harreld.

"State-run colleges have a constitutional obligation to not endorse, advance, or aid religion," Elliott wrote in the letter. "When a government entity like the University of Iowa creates prayer areas for specific religions and imposes religious rules upon students ... it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with religion. The university finds itself in a position where it must either sponsor and endorse the tenets of a religion by allowing it to impose religious rules, or dictate to religious students which tenets they are allowed to follow on university property."

The FFRF's protest doesn't apply only to the Muslim prayer rooms, as the university's chapel also violates the Establishment Clause, the group claims.

The FFRF wants the university to close the prayer rooms and "remove Christian symbols from the chapel." Students and faculty can go elsewhere for their religious obligations, the FFRF said.

"There are already numerous places to worship near the campus appropriately provided by private entities," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the FFRF's co-president.

Sources: Freedom From Religion Foundation, Iowa City Press-Citizen / Photo credit: University of Iowa

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