“Airport Garage Now Muslim House of Worship”

So reads the title of a column by political writers Matier & Ross at SFGate.com:

Muslim cabbies now have their very own place at San Francisco International Airport to wash their hands and feet before they pray.

Under Islamic law, Muslims are required to pray five times a day — a ritual that also calls for a ceremonial cleansing.

For many cab drivers, that’s meant either lugging bottled water around or using one of the bathrooms inside the terminal to wash — a practice not always welcomed by airport passengers.

So Royal Cab driver Hasan Khan, 52, a Pakistani immigrant, collected some 300 signatures from fellow cabbies, urging the airport to give them their own cleansing station.

Airport brass obliged — and the wash equipment was installed on the ground floor of the main garage, right next to where the drivers congregate for their breaks.

“The way we look at it … this was in the interest of maintaining a good relationship with ground transportation providers,” says airport spokesman Doug Yakel.

Various commenters are upset at this; consider, for instance, this American Thinker post:

Right: ‘maintaining a good relationship” means not getting your head cut off. One can’t imagine that evangelicals, Jews, Catholics, Mormons or any other religious group would receive this kind of exclusive use of city-owned property. But then again, where are the beheadings undertaken by fanatical evangelicals, Jews, Catholics, or Mormons?

Sharia creeps in on cat’s feet, out of the San Francisco fog.

This sort of criticism, it seems to me, misses just how commonly lots of religious groups — and usually Christian ones — are accommodated by the government. One can debate the wisdom of any particular accommodation (though this one seems quite sensible), or the wisdom of the general practice of religious accommodation. But to suggest that this is somehow special kowtowing to Muslims, alone of other groups, strikes me as quite mistaken.

Let me offer just a few examples; not all involve use of government property, but all involve practices that are designed to benefit religious observers, often those of particular groups.

1. Jewish law, as interpreted by many Orthodox Jews, bars them from carrying things in their pockets outdoors on the Sabbath. But if a set of wires called an “eruv” — often attached to utility poles — is set up in the neighborhood, then such carrying within the eruv boundary is allowed. Orthodox Jewish communities therefore often erect eruvs, which requires the permission of the entities that own the property to which the eruv is attached. That will often include government entities, which in many (but not all) places are happy to provide this accommodation to their citizens.

2. State-run liquor stores, in those states in which the state has a monopoly on selling liquor, often stock kosher wines.

3. Cafeterias in government buildings sometimes still serve fish on Fridays, which I take it stems from an accommodation of the traditional (though now no longer mandated) Catholic practice of not eating meat on Fridays.

4. Places where many Jews live have schools closed on Jewish holidays.

5. Though we take it for granted, the calendar is understandably optimized for the convenience of the Christian majority. Jewish and Muslim students might seek special accommodations when classes or tests fall on the Sabbath or religious holiday (whether taking a makeup test or just having a class recorded and the recording posted on the class Web site), but Christians don’t need such accommodation, because school is already off on Sundays and on Christmas. Related, Sunday closing laws, which used to be much more prevalent (and which have generally been upheld against constitutional challenge), have long benefited people who as a result haven’t had a conflict between their employment duties and their felt obligation to go to church Sundays.

6. Many states bar the sale of alcohol within some distance of a place of worship. (Larkin v. Grendel’s Den (1982) held that the government couldn’t give religious institutions a discretionary veto over the issuance of such licenses, but it said that categorically prohibiting licenses near places of worship is permissible.) That applies to all places of worship, regardless of religiosity, but to the extent that it’s seen as a benefit to places of worship and to worshippers — and that is the stated intent of the law — it overwhelmingly benefits Christian institutions.

The list could go on for many pages; religious accommodations are commonplace in American life, including in government-run facilities and on government-owned property. Some of these accommodations may be unsound; for instance, I think Sunday closing laws and bans on sale of alcohol near places of worship unfairly impose substantial burdens on nonobservers (in a way that the foot-washing station doesn’t). But here I’m simply trying to respond to the factual claim that there’s somehow something shockingly unusual in the accommodation for Muslims in this instance — and it turns out there isn’t.

Nor can one distinguish these, I think, on the grounds that the foot-washing station is only available to Muslims. I doubt, given the SFGate story, that there’s any law barring non-Muslims from washing their feet there. (They might get glares from others, but I know of no legal prohibition on non-Muslims using this, and indeed a denomination-specific prohibition would be unconstitutional.) I even doubt that there’s a requirement that the foot-washing station be used only by those who sincerely believe that they have a religious obligation to wash their feet; such limitations might be permissible — many accommodations are open only to those who sincerely feel a religious need for the accommodation, but I don’t see any evidence that this is one such.

Likewise, I don’t think that one can distinguish the examples on the grounds that the foot-washing station is a “Muslim house of worship.” It is a means that Muslims can use to facilitate their religious practices (here, worship), but so is letting people attach an eruv to city-owned utility poles, giving a student a chance to make up a test that was administered on Yom Kippur, closing a school on Yom Kippur, closing all government buildings on Sundays.

And one can’t distinguish the examples on the grounds that some of them are in the government’s interest as well as in the religious observers’ (for instance, when a school in an area with a large Jewish minority closes for the Jewish holy days rather than having to deal with many absences by teachers and students, or when a liquor store makes money from selling kosher wine). As the SFGate story points out, having the station keeps people from washing their feet in airport restrooms, a practice that many non-Muslim passengers might find offputting, and having happy and promptly available cab drivers is good for the airport and its passengers.

More broadly, religious accommodations will often differ for different practices. Sometimes there’s a very close analogy between a requested accommodation and other accommodations for other groups (for instance, between Muslims’ requests for exemptions from no-headgear rules and Orthodox Jews’ requests for such exemptions, or Muslims’ requests for time off to worship and Seventh-Day Adventists’ or Orthodox Jews’ requests). Sometimes the analogy is less close, for instance because no other religious groups require special washing of a sort that isn’t comfortably done in a normal public restroom, and that at the same time is relatively simple to accommodate. I think the important point, though, is to look at the broad pattern of religious accommodations, and ask whether the accommodation generally falls within the broad range of practices that government entities accommodate (usually because they can do that quite cheaply, and with little burden on third parties).

So, again, one can debate the merits of any particular accommodation, whether offered to Muslims or to others. But one should recognize that the accommodations that have recently been offered to Muslims are generally part of a much longer tradition of offering accommodations to many other groups, predominantly Christians (followed in frequency by Jews). For more on this, see my 2007 National Review Online column on this general subject, or this chain of posts.