The Volokh Conspiracy

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Religion and the Law

Maryland CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) on Public School Restrooms


An interesting press release from last Thursday:

The Maryland office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, today called on Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) system to amend its new school bathroom guidelines in response to privacy complaints reported to the organization in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, CAIR's Maryland office sent a letter with a list of recommended changes to MCPS Superintendent Monifa McKnight and the Board of Education.

Among other recommendations, the civil rights and advocacy group is calling for the following changes to be implemented to protect student privacy:

  • Privacy doors for each individual stall in multi-occupancy public school bathrooms.
  • Closing off of urinals in each multi-occupancy bathroom in public schools from use unless and until privacy curtains or doors are installed around each individual unit.
  • Mirrors installed on the inside of at least one stall door of each multi-occupancy bathroom so students who wear hijab (Islamic head scarf) and others can adjust their clothing in private.
  • Signage on multi-occupancy bathroom doors reflecting the school system's guidelines on unisex and gender-neutral[ ]bathrooms so students are informed, prepared and aware of the changes before entering bathrooms, and have a reasonable opportunity (and additional accommodations/time if necessary) to seek out single occupancy bathrooms in school if they choose to do so.
  • New construction of public schools featuring plans exclusively for single occupancy bathrooms versus multi-occupancy bathrooms.

Note, of course, that some of these proposals (such as for having all restrooms be single-occupancy) would likely be quite expensive. More:

[NOTE: As part of their sincerely held religious beliefs, many Muslims avoid undressing or being completely alone with an unrelated member of the opposite sex]. 

Last December, a parent reported to CAIR that her son, who attends a MCPS middle school, entered a bathroom designated for boys and came[ ]upon a student who he perceived to be of the opposite sex "sitting on a urinal." There was no privacy door or curtain around the urinal.

The student fled from the bathroom to report the incident to the principal's office, where he was reportedly told that bathrooms are all gender-neutral now and "there's nothing the school can do" about it. Her son was reportedly granted an exception to use a single occupancy teacher's bathroom located further away from his class.

One of CAIR's offices is also handling a case involving the rights of a Muslim student who had removed her hijab to adjust it in the girls' bathroom at her public school when a student who she perceived to be of the opposite sex entered and saw her with her hair exposed in violation of her sincerely held beliefs, leaving her feeling shocked and humiliated.

Other parents have informed CAIR's Maryland office that their children no longer feel safe or comfortable using school bathrooms and wait until they return home at the end of the day to use the bathroom, raising concerns about poor health outcomes and the impact on school performance.

In its letter to MCPS administrators in Maryland, CAIR wrote in part:

"We are deeply concerned that students and parents have not been consulted or informed about such sweeping changes that stand to impact the mental, emotional and physical well-being of every child who attends your school system. 

"As a community based Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, our priority is the safety and well-being of our communities. We hope you understand and agree that every single child deserves to feel safe and included in schools, and never at the expense of another child's safety or well-being." 

CAIR has encouraged[ ]the school district to consider the following principles as it reviews its bathroom and privacy policies:

  1. One student's rights should not violate the rights of others.
  2. Every child deserves to be seen and valued without it being at the expense of others.
  3. Schools have a responsibility to be transparent with parents about policies and guidelines.
  4. Trust in the school system requires transparency and opportunity for community input.
  5. No child should feel unsafe or have to wait to use the bathroom until they get home at the end of the school day because they feel they cannot uphold their sincerely held religious beliefs regarding privacy and modesty.