Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Display of Catholic Images at The Catholic University of America

It is hard to know what to make of this story (h/t Professor Bainbridge).  What is most curious about it to me is the allegation by Professor Banzhaf that Muslims were compelled to "perform their prayers surrounded by symbols of Catholicism -- e.g., a wooden crucifix, paintings of Jesus, pictures of priests and theologians which many Muslim students find inappropriate."  Later in the story Banzhaf is quoted as saying that Muslim students have no choice but to pray "surrounded by pictures of Popes."

It seems to me that there are two issues: (1) are there rooms on the CUA campus which do not contain such images or items (and, I suppose, were students prevented from gathering to use them for prayer)?; and (2) is the reference to these items' "inappropriateness" one which is specifically limited to their inappropriateness as places of Muslim prayer, or is it a more general sense that displaying these images and items at CUA is inappropriate per se?

As to the first question, in my wonderful year at the law school at CUA, I can think off-hand of several rooms which did not display the complained-of images and items.  Indeed, I can even think of a few such rooms at the Salesian house near campus where I was lucky enough to sleep.  It does not seem to me that it would be difficult to find such a room on the CUA campus, though perhaps the claim is that the University willfully barred the students from access to these rooms.

As to the second question, I can understand that Muslims might not want to pray in a room bedecked with Catholic images.  On the other hand, if the claim is that these images are "inappropriate" for display tout court, I am not sympathetic to that claim.

UPDATE: Please see the letter by President Garvey linked to in the comments, which clears many things up, including the fact that it seems that not a single Muslim student has complained to the University.  Not one.  And see also the Banzhaf press release on this matter referenced by David Nickol.  As I've observed about Maureen Dowd's columns, this may be a case of mixing together a few too many utterly disparate animadversions.  

FURTHER UPDATE: It gets worse.  See also this story, which reports that no CUA student has complained to Banzhaf either, notwithstanding his ongoing attempts to solicit plaintiffs for the complaint.  Good grief.


DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

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A couple thoughts:

1.) A question, to which I don't have a good answer, is whether part of having a "Catholic identity" is that there is some Catholic imagery of every room of a campus. I'm inclined to say yes, though I could be convinced otherwise. It bugs me when Catholic schools take down crucifixes in certain rooms so that some government-funded instruction can take place there. One of the benefits of a Catholic school is that our faith is integrated into everything we do. Setting some rooms aside that are free from religious imagery seems akin to Catholics declaring certain parts of their lives (e.g. their business activity, their sex lives, etc.) as outside the influence of their faith.

Prof. DeGirolami implies that if the CUA admits non-Catholic students, it should have such places. I'm not so sure.

2.) I understand we should hold ourselves to a higher standard, but there's part of me that can't help comparing what Muslims (or perhaps more precisely, attorneys representing them) regard as hostile treatment in Christian-dominated areas, and what Christians experience in Muslim-dominated areas. The US has a variety of public and private universities; some of the private ones have a Catholic identity, and on those campuses Muslims find it difficult to find a room to pray in that does not contain Catholic imagery. Imagine how such a complaint would sound to Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Again, 2 wrongs don't make 1 right, and we need to behave as best we can, regardless of what others are doing, and not all Muslims are responsible for the actions of a few, but the contrast is still jarring.

Posted by: JohnMcG | Oct 28, 2011 2:45:11 PM

Re John McG's comment:
Certainly as Catholics we integrate our faith in everything we do. But I don't see why that should necessarily mean there must be Catholic imagery in every room.

At the University of St. Thomas, we (as do most or all Catholic educational institutions) welcome students, faculty and staff of all faiths. Surely that includes welcoming the fact that their faith is as integral a part of their lives as it is to the lives of Catholics. It is difficult for me to understand how making a room available where non-Christian students could engage in prayer/worship without Catholic images would be "declaring certain parts of [our] lives...as outside the influence of [our] faith."

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Oct 28, 2011 3:15:28 PM

This claim is both ridiculous and obnoxious. If I went to a Jewish university would I think it appropriate to complain if there were a Star of David in every room? Of course not. To go beyond complaining and file a lawsuit seeking to compel the university to remove some Stars of David would be an outright attack on the religious freedom of the Jewish university. Such is the case here. As reported in the press, the lawsuit asserts an entirely bogus religious freedom claim as a means of directly attacking CUA's right to religious expression.

If CUA wants to have some non-Catholic space for non-Catholics, that's fine. But if it doesn't want to, that's its right. If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a Catholic university, if it so chooses, can put a picture of the Pope and a crucifix on every wall of the campus.

Posted by: Dan | Oct 28, 2011 3:44:50 PM

One would think that a Catholic University, although it would not try to coerce someone who was not Catholic into being a member of Christ's Church, would certainly not want to encourage anyone to break The First Commandment.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Oct 28, 2011 5:34:18 PM

What is it with Banzhaf? His press release begins as follows:

In the wake of the first-ever criminal indictment of a Catholic Bishop and a Catholic Diocese for failure to
report suspected child abuse, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, has been charged with
violations of the Human Rights Act for allegedly discriminating illegally against both Muslims and women
at Catholic University in the District of Columbia.

What in the world has the indictment of Bishop Finn in Kansas have to do with Cardinal Wuerl? I admit I am not familiar with what is appropriate in a press release, but it seems to me that it is up to a journalist writing a story based on a press release to make a connection between Finn and Wuerl, if he so chooses. But for Banzhaf to include it in his press release is tantamount to him saying, "I'm out to get the Catholic Church!" There's something really malicious about it, it seems to me.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 28, 2011 6:06:55 PM

I'm with David. Different topic, different bishop, different place -- but they're both Catholic! Heck, even if there's more of an identity of defendant, such as one big corporation, I don't think a press release about a new case should start by saying "look! it's a known bad guy!" If I've got a slip and fall case against Wal-Mart in Newark, I wouldn't say "Wal-mart, which just got sue for employment discrimination in Seattle, is now facing a tort claim in Newark." So?

That alone colors my view of the lawsuit as a likely crock.

Posted by: Jack M. | Oct 28, 2011 6:22:07 PM

The Catholic League reports NO moslem students have complained. It's all one law professor from George Washington University. Someone from Catholic University ought to file a complaint against GWU. Possibly the allocation of student activity fees discriminates against people of faith. Or could someone file a complaint against the professor with the DC Bar? The Catholic League also reports the case against the Bishop is a sham.

Posted by: malcolm coate | Oct 28, 2011 6:46:03 PM

"It is difficult for me to understand how making a room available where non-Christian students could engage in prayer/worship without Catholic images would be "declaring certain parts of [our] lives...as outside the influence of [our] faith.""

Susan--perhaps this is a worthy debate, but it is one that should happen outside of the context of this ridiculous complaint. CUA is not obligated, as a private institution, to accomodate such a request. I'd be very disappointed if they caved into this, and frankly, this is a matter where the state has no role and no say. As said above, these are theologial and ecumenical issues that need to be resolve internally. Don't you agree?

Posted by: Don Altobello | Oct 29, 2011 8:56:24 AM

Don, with all due respect, how exactly would one start such a debate without making it appear through a false sense of ecumenism, that although we profess to believe in The ONE Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, in regards to The First Commandment, God may have been mistaken.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Oct 29, 2011 11:18:36 AM

A letter from President Garvey to CUA students:

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,

You may have heard or read news accounts this week about a complaint filed with D.C.’s Office of Human Rights regarding our Muslim students. The complaint has been filed by John Banzhaf, a professor at a neighboring university who has no affiliation with us. In a press release he issued October 19, Mr. Banzhaf claimed that Catholic University has “illegally discriminated” against Muslim students. That charge is completely without foundation. Worse, 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.

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. And today we learned from an article in the Washington Post that Mr. Banzhaf himself has not received any complaints from our Muslim students. Instead, according to today’s Washington Post, he based his complaint on an article that appeared in that newspaper in December 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. 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. Since 2007 our Muslim enrollment has more than doubled, from 56 to 122.

I want to reassure all of you that our Muslim students are welcome at our University. Our Catholic teaching instructs us to embrace our fellow human beings of all faith traditions. They enrich us with their presence and help to promote inter-religious and inter-cultural understanding. I regret very much that our Muslim students have been used as pawns in a manufactured controversy. I urge all of you continue to show one another the respect and goodwill that are the hallmarks of The Catholic University of America.

John Garvey


Posted by: AML | Oct 29, 2011 2:20:22 PM

Some news outlets have tried to turn this into an opportunity for Muslim bashing, it should be no such thing.

Rather, it provides an excellent opportunity for lawyer bashing.

(Speaking--God willing--as a future lawyer)

Posted by: AML | Oct 29, 2011 2:25:31 PM

AML, thanks for posting President Garvey's letter. Very helpful. I will update the post to reflect this useful response.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 29, 2011 2:35:46 PM

If they don't like CUA then they don't have to go there. I think we should demand they put a chapel for Catholics at the Al Azar in Egypt. Muslims seem to have this penchant for making themselves very unwelcome.

Posted by: Fr. J | Oct 29, 2011 3:58:05 PM

Don: Yes, I agree. My comment wasn't addressed to the lawsuit but to the first of the two questions raised in John McG's comment that preceded my own.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Oct 30, 2011 8:10:56 AM

I am wondering on what basis The Washington D.C. office of Human Rights could have possibly believed this investigation could take six months? Clearly the office didn't do their due-diligence before agreeing to be interviewed by Fox News.

Susan, with all due respect, how can a University or College remain Catholic while encouraging some of her students to break God's First Commandment, simultaneously?

Posted by: Nancy D. | Oct 30, 2011 11:28:30 AM

This lawsuit comes at a time when plantiff's lawyers are facing increasing criticism for bringing frivolous and nuisance lawsuits.

Posted by: JohnMcG | Oct 30, 2011 6:39:38 PM

Nancy, could you explain how CUA is encouraging students to break the first commandment?

Posted by: AML | Oct 31, 2011 9:51:10 AM

AML, to be clear, I was referring to the suggestion that was made by Professor Stabile that a space be designated at Catholic University where non-Catholic students could engage in prayer/worship.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Oct 31, 2011 10:17:44 AM


Are you suggesting that Muslims who pray violate the First Commandment?

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 31, 2011 10:38:53 AM