Bowing in the Chapel

No, Muslim students didn't take wooden pews out of the Wichita State University chapel because they wanted more room to kneel and store prayer rugs.

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Claim:  Muslim students removed wooden pews from Wichita State University’s chapel because they lacked a place in which to kneel and pray.

FALSE

Example: [Collected via e-mail and Twitter, October 2015]

Muslim students have the chapel stripped of its pews at Wichita State University

Origins:  On 8 October 2015, the web site The College Fix  published an article titled “Pews Removed from Campus Chapel to Accommodate Muslim Students,” and on the same day, Fox News opinion columnist Todd Starnes published an article titled “Heartland Fury as University Renovates Chapel to Accommodate Muslims.” The former article stated:

Wooden pews were removed from Grace Memorial Chapel at Wichita State University over the summer to accommodate Muslims students who sought to kneel and pray.

Prior to the renovation, Muslim students reportedly had difficulty finding a place to pray, and even used parts of the library to that end.

Now they have space to worship, as the 2,000-square-foot chapel has been transformed into a so-called “faith-neutral space.” Christian students utilize portable chairs when they use the decades-old chapel, which opened in 1963.

Similarly, Starnes opened his piece with the presumption that the renovations were unquestionably undertaken to mollify Muslim students, framing the controversy as one of browbeaten dissenters unfairly labeled “Islamophobic”:

A decision to make a university’s chapel “faith neutral” to accommodate Muslim students has created great angst in the nation’s Heartland after critics were accused of being Islamophobic.

The articles didn’t include any other information substantiating the claim that the Wichita State University chapel was renovated specifically to accommodate Muslim students, although Starnes asserted that “pews were ripped from the floor and replaced with portable chairs to make room for Muslim prayer rugs.”

As expected, the 8 October 2015 articles prompted backlash over purported accommodation to Muslims at Wichita State University, despite a lack of evidence that the chapel renovations were demanded, or even requested by, Muslim students. On 12 October 2015 the Wichita Eagle published an article about the controversy titled “Campus Minister: Muslims Not Ones Who Asked for Wichita State Chapel Renovations,” which sought to clear up then-widespread misconceptions about the pew removal. According to that article, the pews were not removed to “placate” anyone, and the chapel’s renovation was prompted not by Muslims but by Christians.

The removal of the pews at Wichita State University’s Grace Chapel — criticized by some as a Muslim takeover of the facility — actually was sought by a Christian campus minister and Christian students who wanted a more flexible worship space, the former campus minister and others said.

“I certainly had that idea … five, six or seven of us all kind of had that idea within about the same six- to eight-month time frame three years ago,” said the Rev. Christopher Eshelman, a United Methodist minister who served as campus minister at WSU in 2011 and 2012.

So how did folks on social media, a blog, and Todd Starnes come to so strongly believe the renovations were an act of creeping Islamization? The paper explained:

Then-student body president Matt Conklin, who is Christian, sponsored the changes through student government and university administration, which took most of the year he was in office, Eshelman said.

“Eventually, it was approved,” Eshelman said. “Everything went beautifully for six months and then … some people took offense and then it blew up.”

It blew up after an Oct. 2 Facebook post by WSU alumna and donor Jean Ann Cusick, who decried what she called “accommodation” of Muslim students, who have brought in a prayer rug and use the chapel for daily prayers. Cusick, who [previously] spoke to The Eagle, refused to comment.

Her post quickly moved through conservative Christian circles online and was picked up by national media.

Nothing could be further from the truth, Eshelman said.

In short, it’s completely false that Wichita State University’s chapel pews were removed to placate Muslims (or to make room for prayer rugs). Christian students and former faculty worked to affect the changes for several years to better suit their mission, and the only offense taken was largely on the part of Christians mistakenly inferring that the renovations were requested by Muslim students.

Last updated: 23 October 2015

Originally published: 23 October 2015