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Public university organizes Muslim religious celebration, claims it’s ‘cultural’

UPDATED

Student clubs belatedly used as a ‘cover’ for the chancellor’s office?

The University of Michigan-Flint is listed as the “organizer” and “contact” for a June 7 Muslim religious celebration on campus, according to screenshots shared with The College Fix.

“Please join UM-Flint at an Iftar feast and breaking of the fast. The entire UM-Flint community is welcome to partake in this gathering and celebration,” reads the invitation shared with The Fix by Prof. Mark Perry.

It continues: “Iftar is the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during the holy month of Ramadan, when observing Muslims abstain from food and water during the daytime.”

The email screenshot lists Pam Zemore, community relations specialist in the university advancement office, as the contact for the event.

“Chancellor’s Office” is the department responsible for hosting the June 7 event, according to a UM-Flint calendar listing that remains live as of Thursday afternoon. This listing says the contact for the event is Dru Doran, executive assistant to the chancellor.

Prof. Perry also shared a screenshot of a subsequent invitation he received that replaces the university as the organizer with the “Muslim Student Association and the Saudi Student Club.” This invitation still lists Zemore, the university advancement employee, as the contact.

Perry’s email correspondence with Zemore, also shared with The Fix, shows that he inquired about the university’s role in the event after business hours on Friday, asking how it can serve as organizer when the University of Michigan itself includes a disclaimer that “as a public institution [it] does not observe religious holidays.”

Zemore responded Monday that the event “is intended to help develop cultural awareness within our campus community, not as a religious event”:

Therefore, it is open to all members of the UM-Flint community, regardless of their religious beliefs. We have been advised by the Office of the General Counsel that holding a cultural event such as this does not violate the policies you cited.

The rest of the correspondence does not include responses from Zemore or Vice Chancellor Mary Jo Sekelsky, whom Perry added in messages on Monday and Wednesday.

MORE: Perry challenges UMich programs that give ‘preferential treatment’ to women

The professor’s subsequent emails seek answers as to how an explicitly religious holiday for Muslims of all nationalities can be classified as “cultural,” and how broadly the university shared the revised invitation. Perry wrote:

I’ve checked with a number of faculty colleagues who have NOT received your new, revised invitation, with a noted changed in sponsorship/organizer following my email to you (see attachment). Will all of my faculty colleagues (and staff members) be receiving an invitation, assuming that the religious observance on June 7 is open to all member of the UM-Flint community?

In a late Monday message, he told the two employees that the “obvious answer” to his question “is that Islam is the culture being celebrated on June 7 for Ramadan Iftar, but Islam is a religion and not a culture.” He asked if representatives from “local Islamic organizations or mosques” will be giving any presentations or talks at the event.

In his Wednesday message, Perry claimed the university-organized event “violates federal and state laws and UM’s own policy of not using university resources to promote” a religious event:

It is indefensible in my opinion that you are now using student clubs in an attempt to provide cover for the true sponsors and organizers of Ramadan Iftar – the chancellor’s office …

Further, even if it had been a student club event, which it originally was obviously not, it would be inappropriate, prejudicial, and unfair that the staff resources of UM-Flint including the chancellor’s office and campus staff like Pam Zemore are being used to promote and organize this one religious event when those same resources (e.g., reserving the Michigan Rooms, ordering the food, planning the program, sending invitations, etc.) have not been made available to any other religion, student club or organization. …

In the interest of fairness to all religions (and all student groups) and to prevent the appearance (if not the reality) of religious special privilege, bias, partiality, favoritism and double standards, perhaps you will consider whether the religious observance of Ramadan Iftar scheduled to take place on June 7 at UM-Flint should either be: a) cancelled or b) moved to a location off-campus on property that is not associated with UM-Flint to comply with UM’s policies and state/federal laws regarding the use of taxpayer funds and university resources (including staff like Pam Zemore, the chancellor’s office, and campus space like the Michigan Rooms) to sponsor, host, promote, fund and organize the religious observance of Ramadan Iftar.

‘Any religious practice’ will happen in a ‘separate room’

Though The Fix sent queries to UM-Flint staff, the spokesperson for the University of Michigan’s flagship campus, Rick Fitzgerald, responded to them Friday.

He forwarded a response from the Office of General Counsel to Perry, which said the Iftar event was sponsored by the UM-Flint chancellor’s office “in conjunction” with the student groups mentioned in the revised invitation that Perry received.

It is “intended to be an educational, secular event, open to all members of the University of Michigan-Flint community, regardless of religious belief or lack thereof,” according to the general counsel:

It is our further understanding that any religious practice will be organized by the student organizations and conducted in a separate room. Given these understandings, we do not believe that the event, as planned, runs afoul of U-M policy or the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Perry has filed multiple complaints against both the University of Michigan System and Michigan State University for programs, awards and a study space that he claims discriminate against men, whites or both.

UPDATE: The University of Michigan’s flagship campus responded to queries Friday, including the general counsel’s response to Perry. The post has been amended accordingly.

MORE: UM-Flint admits faculty awards that block men and whites are illegal

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