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Analysis: Prayer spaces vary across Big Ten universities

Ohio State’s Interfaith Prayer and Reflection Room is located on the third-floor of the Ohio Union. Photo credit: Lantern File Photo

There are no religious references, symbols or icons, nothing to show a preference toward any particular religion in Ohio State’s Interfaith Prayer and Reflection Room — and that’s by design. The space, located on the third floor of the Ohio Union, is meant to be available to any student of any faith who wants to peacefully pray or meditate.

The space, built as part of the new Ohio Union in 2010, offers two ablution rooms for religious washing — practiced by some Muslims — and two meditation rooms. There’s also a meeting space that can be reserved by any student organization, including nonreligious ones.

A review of Big Ten universities shows that most set aside at least one room for prayer, and OSU is among the best equipped.

Many university officials mentioned the space in the Union in the aftermath of the Nov. 28 knife attack on campus and in response to a previous Lantern interview with the attacker, who mentioned he didn’t know where on campus he could pray, having just transferred from Columbus State University at the time of the story.

Cheryl Achterberg, dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology, decided to create a new meditation and reflection space in Arps Hall in the aftermath of the attack.

“A space like this was an unmet need,” Achterberg said. “I realized that this is something that we could take the initiative on and make a difference”.

Though the Union room is the main space dedicated to meditation, records show more often than not, it’s being used for non-religious purposes. In fact, nonreligious student organizations use it more than 80 percent of the time that it’s reserved.

Religious organizations have raised concerns about how difficult booking the space can be. That’s the case for Susannah Sagan, associate executive director at OSU Hillel, an off-campus Jewish Community Center geared toward university students.

“We used to use the (Union) prayer room for accommodation, but we don’t use it anymore, because it’s hard to book and because it’s so far in the way back, students got lost trying to find it,” Sagan said.

Religious room, secular use

USG President Taylor Stepp addresses students at a USG meeting Sept. 5 at the Ohio Union. Credit: Shelby Lum / Photo editor

Then-USG President Taylor Stepp addresses students at a USG meeting in 2013 in the Interfaith Prayer and Reflection Room. Credit: Lantern File Photo

According to OSU records, between January and March the room was booked by the Undergraduate Student Government, esports and various Greek Life organizations. The rest of the time, the main space of the room was occupied mostly by the Muslim Students’ Association and occasionally by New Life and H2O Church, two Christian organizations.

The fact that there is an association meeting in the room doesn’t prevent students from accessing the individual prayer spaces and ablution rooms — connected to the Interfaith Prayer and Reflection Room, but with separate entrances. However, it does put into question the real purpose of the room.

USG passed a resolution on Feb. 8 in support of recommending to the university that use of the space be more strictly defined.

“Let it Further Be Resolved that the Ohio Union should reconsider its policy regarding the usage of the Interfaith and Prayer Room (sic), keeping the space for prayer and religious purposes only,” the resolution read.

David Isaacs, spokesman for the Office of Student Life, said OSU works to accommodate religious groups.

“The room is available to religious groups who would like to reserve it, and we work with students organizations all the time to meet their needs,” Issacs said.

Phil Foell, director of strategic events at International Friendships, a Christian group with 400 student members, also questioned the usage of the room.

“Every time we try to book the Interfaith room, it’s not available,” Foell said. “In general, it’s very difficult to find spaces on campus, now 80 percent of our activities are off campus because of the lack of space. It doesn’t seem like a priority of Ohio State University to provide more space for association.”

Isaacs said he did not know whether Student Life plans to open new meditation spaces on campus any time soon.

Historic backlash against prayer rooms

For some secularist groups, the creation of prayer spaces on public university campuses undermines their interpretation of the separation of church and state.

In 2016, at the University of Iowa, two prayer rooms were created at the initiative of Muslim students. This decision was contested by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-profit organization not affiliated with the university that promotes the separation of church and state. The University of Iowa, as a public institution, had “unconstitutionally entangled itself with religion,” Patrick Elliott, FFRF attorney, said at the time in a letter to the university’s president.

Separation of church and state laws prevent public universities from creating spaces specifically for the practicing of one religion exclusively. University of Iowa’s Muslim Students’ Association argued that the two prayer rooms were not a violation of the First Amendment because the spaces were non denominational, and not restricted to Muslim prayer.

Across the Big Ten

Credit: Robert Scarpinito | Managing Editor for Design

Records requests sent to all of the Big Ten schools show that religious accommodations vary among schools.

Among Big Ten universities, OSU is one of four that has several rooms for students to meditate, with at least one equipped for Muslim prayers through ablution rooms. This puts OSU in the top third of the Big Ten universities surveyed in that regard. Indiana University did not respond to requests for data, and the University of Maryland was not included in this survey.

Penn State, Rutgers University and Northwestern University provide the most extensive accommodation for the practice of religion among all the Big Ten universities.

Penn State has a whole spiritual center, the largest of its kind in the country.

“Most of the prayer rooms we have have no form of religious icons, but we also have three which have a permanent slant,” said Robert Smith, director of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Development at Penn State. “Yet as a public university, we cannot rent a space for one religion specifically. So we have one room with Christian iconography, one with a Torah kept in it and one equipped for Muslim ablution and angled accordingly to the Muslim requirement — but anybody can rent this room.”

Unlike OSU, Northwestern and Penn State both feature — currently or to be established in the coming months — prayer rooms equipped for Muslim prayer in dorms, and both universities have prayer rooms located at multiple locations on campus.

Rutgers also has several prayer rooms across campus, and representatives said the university relies on a number of affiliated congregations near campus to provide spaces for students as well.

The University of Michigan has 12 reflection rooms on its Ann Arbor campus. The rooms are simply furnished and they do not have ablution equipment.

The University of Iowa has a nondenominational chapel, the Danforth Chapel, adjacent to the Iowa Memorial Union. The chapel is open for quiet reflection and is the space for prayer and meditation in the Iowa Memorial Union.

The University of Minnesota has several meditation rooms with no religious affiliation. It is the university’s policy that every association has equal access to these spaces.

The University of Wisconsin and Michigan State University have one room specifically designated for quiet reflection and religious organizations also operate in privately owned buildings on or near campus.

The University of Illinois, the University of Nebraska and Purdue University do not have dedicated spaces on campus for meditation purposes. Representatives from the schools said they work on a case-by-case basis to accommodate the requests of religious associations.

“I use these spaces, and I’d like to say that we are so blessed that the Union has given us that space. When we think of interfaith or meditation room, it’s a space for anyone to sit back, chill and have that quiet time.”—Yusuf Saeed, co-outreach chair for the Muslim Student Association

Initiatives for more accommodation

While there have not been any university-level initiatives to create more prayer spaces on campus, there have been several independent initiatives.

In addition to meditation space created recently in Arps Hall by the College of Education and Human Ecology, students can go to Atwell Hall Room 191 at the Wexner Medical Center. The space isn’t equipped with ablution rooms, but it provides spaces for prayer.

Though he was unaware these rooms existed, Isaacs praised them and the initiative of the people who created them.

“It’s wonderful,” Isaacs said. “Student Life doesn’t control all the buildings on campus, so we don’t have a role in what goes on in the academic buildings.”

These efforts also mean a lot to Yussef Saeed, co-outreach chair for the Muslim Student Association.

“I use these spaces, and I’d like to say that we are so blessed that the Union has given us that space,” Saeed said. “When we think of interfaith or meditation room, it’s a space for anyone to sit back, chill and have that quiet time.”

Amber Hussain, co-outreach chair for the Muslim Students’ Association, a second-year in neuroscience, said she wants to keep pushing for more of these spaces not for just current students, but for future generations as well.

“We have a good amount of prayer rooms,” Hussain said. “But we have a goal that we want to reach eventually — we want every building to have some kind of space, so students have a place to go, be alone and reflect. I think there (is) a lot of usefulness in having a room in one of the higher traffic areas, such as Thompson (Library) or the RPAC.”


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