In its determination to be tolerant and liberal (in the best sense of the word), Duke University announced that a Muslim call to prayer would be amplified and broadcast from the Duke Chapel bell tower, beginning Friday. The uproar over that announcement forced the university to back down.
For some critics, the prayer call from Duke Chapel was another indication that we would all soon be wearing burquas and following Sharia law. Others were less angry but still upset over the use of a Christian church's bell tower as a minaret.
Freedom of religion and religious tolerance do not require one religion's sacred worship space to be taken over by another faith's adherents. "Buck" Duke was a staunch Methodist who affiliated the university that bears his name with the Methodist church. Duke Chapel is a United Methodist worship space (although it more closely resembles the great European cathedrals built for Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Anglican services). Most Methodist churches are less ornate.
Duke counts several hundred Islamic faithful among its university community. They should have a place to worship, and their religious beliefs should be respected and accommodated if possible. But the university's decision to have Islamic prayers announced weekly from the sacred Methodist bell tower goes far beyond respect and accommodation. It amounts to thievery or invasion, a takeover by another religion.
Duke had allowed Muslim students to use the chapel's basement for Friday prayers. This falls under the rubric of reasonable accommodation, providing a space for worship without interfering with another religion's sacred space upstairs. It is similar to public schools' allowing start-up churches to use school classrooms on Sunday for their worship services. That does not mean the school is endorsing the church or its beliefs; it is merely allowing members to use available, unused space.
What Duke did in its determination to be tolerant is reminiscent of another religious controversy a few years ago at the College of William and Mary. Gene Nichols, who had recently taken the venerable Virginia college's presidency, decided that the Christian cross should be removed from the college's Wren Chapel. Nichols said he did not want to offend anyone who was not a Christian and wanted the college to be welcoming to everyone. The short-sighted, anti-Christian action cost Nichols his job.
The United States is justifiably proud of its history of religious tolerance, although the record is not spotless. Ours is a pluralistic society that accepts refugees from religious persecution, defends off-the-wall religious practices, and tolerates religious zealots as well as hard-line atheists. Part of that tradition should be the protection of worship space built and supported by one sect against squatting by another sect.