Three times a day during their shifts at the Indianapolis International Airport, more than 100 Muslim cab drivers wash their feet.
In the parking lot where they wait to be dispatched, some fill plastic bottles with water and pour it over the right foot, then the left. Others clean their feet in the restroom sink.
The practice is the last step in a ritual called ablution -- "wudu" in Arabic -- which involves washing several parts of the body to cleanse before Muslims' five daily prayers.
And by November 2008, when the new $1.07 billion airport terminal is scheduled to be complete, the restroom near the parking lot where taxi drivers stay between runs will include floor-level sinks that will make their daily ritual easier.
Such foot baths have started to crop up across the country, in schools such as the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where more than 10 percent of students are Muslims, and at airports such as Kansas City International Airport.
They have drawn the ire of bloggers and pundits, who say they violate the separation of church and state, and the praise of advocacy groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Airport officials say they saw a need for the sinks after employees reported that some of the drivers were washing their feet in hand sinks. They perceived that as a safety hazard.
"We recognize that the practice does go on," said Greta Hawvermale, senior director of engineering and environment for the Indianapolis Airport Authority. "We're looking at how it can be done in a safe way."
Specifics of the foot baths' size and design are not complete. At most, there would be one in the men's restroom and another in the women's . . .
But some critics say these foot baths are religious facilities in a public place -- and a clear constitutional violation.
Robert Spencer founded the group Jihad Watch, which aims to raise awareness of what its founders perceive as a proliferation of Islamic law into mainstream society. Spencer compares installing a foot bath in a restroom to putting in a holy water font to accommodate Catholic cab drivers.
"The only conceivable group that will use the foot bath are Muslims for prayer," Spencer said. "It's a religious installation for a religious use."
Airport officials say they see it differently.
"These facilities are for everybody's use," said David Dawson, spokesman
for the new terminal project.
If the foot baths are for everybody's use, as Dawson contends, why aren't they being installed in all of the bathrooms at the new airport? And if they are being installed to accommodate Muslim taxi cab drivers as is obviously the case, then why aren't similar accommodations being provided for Muslim airline passengers who patronize the airport? It looks like a slippery slope to me. What do you think?
Here's the ACLU's statement explaining why it chose not to file suit against the University of Michigan after it installed foot baths in campus restrooms. While the ACLU acknowledged that the expenditure of public funds to facilitate a religious practice raised red flags, it found the university's motivation for installing the foot baths was a "practical cleanliness and safety issue." Basically, the ACLU felt the Muslim students would wash their feet in the restroom whether or not the foot baths were made available. If they had to use the sinks, the concern was the bathroom floors were getting slopped up and some students didn't want to use the sinks after people washed their feet in them.