WASHINGTON — Last spring, John Banzhaf sued The Catholic University of America for sexual discrimination, after the university announced plans to open single-sex dorms. Now he has targeted CUA again — for discrimination against Muslim students.
But does he have a case?
In October, Banzhaf filed his second claim against CUA, asserting it illegally discriminates against Muslim students on campus by not providing adequate space for them to fulfill religious obligations.
He charged that Catholic University neglected to provide suitable facilities “for the many daily prayers [and] forcing them instead to find temporarily empty classrooms, where they are often surrounded by Catholic symbols, which are incongruous to their religion.”
A look at Banzhaf’s history of filing legal complaints indicates that he has often sued a range of institutions.
While he’s best known for his legal advocacy of anti-smoking efforts, anti-obesity campaigns and quirky initiatives like his famous “potty parity” to make public restrooms of equal size for both sexes, Banzhaf claims to have “filed and won over 100 cases” brought before the D.C. Office of Human Rights.
It was his legal action that caused the Cosmos Club in Washington to change its policies and allow women among its members. And Banzhaf was also behind the legal challenge that eliminated ladies’ night policies at certain bars and nightclubs that once required men to pay a door fee, while waiving door fees to women.
In an interview, Banzhaf defended his history of litigation.
He argues that it’s appropriate for lawyers and law professors “to use their legal skills not just to benefit their client or get a retainer check,” but to promote the public interest, whether in health, discrimination or safety. And it seems that Banzhaf, who was a practicing engineer before he became a lawyer, has developed a trusty formula for initiating discrimination cases.
Still, over his storied career, only one previous complaint focused on religious discrimination. In that 1993 case, according to his website, Banzhaf forced a private instructor’s dance class “to adopt an affirmative-action plan to admit more African-American and Jewish students.”
Banzhaf decided to file his current religious-discrimination case against CUA after reading a December 2010 Washington Post article about the unique but largely positive experience of Muslim students at CUA.
After reviewing the Post story, he determined that “a number of students are concerned there is no place on campus to do their prayers.” And even though the Muslim students cited in the Post story described themselves as “well treated,” Banzhaf reached a different conclusion: Those students had been “denied the right” to reasonably practice their faith.
Banzhaf admits that he had not received any complaints or spoken directly to any Muslim CUA students before filing his complaint against CUA. Further, no complaints of discrimination from Muslim students have been registered with CUA.
Reef Al Shabnan — the same student cited in The Washington Post article that inspired Banzhaf’s legal action — stated in an interview that the lawyer “does not represent me.”
“As a practicing Muslim” at CUA, Shabnan insists she has found “a level of comfort knowing faith is a big part of the institution.”
Describing her time at CUA as a “great experience,” she added, “I don’t feel discriminated against. Attending CUA was a conscious decision, and I knew to a great level what to expect and what not to expect. ... We have friends from different cultures, religions. ... It’s very normal.”
Contrary to Banzhaf’s allegation, Shabnan said, “Everyone [at CUA] is free to practice their faith in any way they want. ... I can pray anywhere: outside, inside, literally anywhere on campus.”
The only issue for her is “practicality” — finding a space. But, for her part, she doesn’t mind if “there are [Christian] symbols in the room.”
Catholic University spokesman Victor Nakas stated that the university’s “faithfulness to our Catholic tradition has also made us a welcome home to students of other religions. No students have registered complaints about the exercise of their religions on our campus. We understand that a professor unaffiliated with Catholic University has made public allegations claiming that we are discriminating against our students on religious grounds, but we have not seen any legal filing — and will respond to them if we do.”
CUA’s policy, issued in 2007 by its university chaplain regarding the “Practice of Other Faiths,” states that it “does not institutionally sponsor campus organizations affiliated with other religions.” However, Banzhaf alleged “the university does in fact have a student organization for Jewish students” — a Jewish Law Students Association — and thus denied Muslim students “equal access to the benefits CUA provides to other student groups.”
Shabnan said she hasn’t experienced discrimination as a Muslim. “I don’t think the school’s policy on this matter is specific to Muslims,” she said.
CUA’s policy regarding the “Practice of Other Faiths” states that it “encourages students who do not share the Catholic faith to regularly practice their own faith traditions with others who share their beliefs [and] makes every effort to help its non-Catholic students connect with their own faith communities off campus who share their religious practices, worship, customs and traditions and where they feel at home,” including local “mosques.”
The school’s policy since 2007 on the “Practice of Other Faiths” further noted that CUA seeks to “better understand the faith-based demographics of our campus and the spiritual needs of its students” to help “prepare and implement CUA’s pastoral plan.”
Annual Ramadan Dinner
In fact, even before Banzhaf filed his second suit against CUA, there were already signs that the university sought to better accommodate a large influx of Muslim students, which has more than doubled since 2007, from 56 to 122 students.
Shabnan reports that on Aug. 31, 2011, the university held its first Iftar dinner — a Muslim tradition of breaking of the fast of Ramadan at sunset. President John Garvey delivered an address at the dinner and announced it will be an annual event.
The “interfaith Iftar” was organized, in part, by the Islamic World Studies department at CUA, which Shabnan said “is expanding.” The modern language department also recently included modern Arabic, in addition to classical Arabic language classes.
After Banzhaf filed his second complaint against CUA, Garvey released a statement to university students, faculty and staff expressing his “regret ... that our Muslim students have been used as pawns in a manufactured controversy.”
Garvey stated: “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.”
Garvey confirmed that “Muslim students are welcome at our university” and that they “enrich us with their presence and help to promote interreligious and intercultural understanding.” He urged those at CUA “to continue to show one another the respect and good will that are the hallmarks of The Catholic University of America.”
A political science major, Shabnan disagrees with Banzhaf’s approach and sees this as an internal matter. A better way to resolve these concerns would be for students to go to the administration, “not to the courts outside the school.”
Stressing that she does not speak for all Muslim students, Shabnan contends that the lawyer’s latest legal challenge is “instigating problems” for Muslims at the university. She said that a number of her colleagues agree that Banzhaf has “no business interfering” and is “just stirring up trouble in the community.”
Banzhaf, for his part, admits that legal action is not the only way to combat discrimination — real or perceived.
He said, “There are many other means which are appropriate, some may be more appropriate than law, to achieve the public interest.”
Mary Rose Somarriba is chief operating officer of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., and is managing editor of Altcatholicah.