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The Tricky Topic of Religious Accommodation in Public Places

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

The New York Times editorial board this month published a problematic opinion piece that is illustrative of the difficulties and ironies that can arise in human rights law. The editorial is about segregated swimming sessions for women in one Brooklyn swimming pool, and it expresses outrage that a public location accommodates the needs of its community's religious women.

Citing city humidity and human rights law, the newspaper's editorial board demands that the city swimming pool cease the accommodation --- a few sessions a week reserved for segregated sex swimming in recognition of the needs of Orthodox Jewish women. The editorial, like the issue itself, reveals just how tricky the topic of religious accommodation can be.

Minority Matters

The problem, according to the NYT, is that the special sessions provided for the women of Brooklyn who are forbidden by their religion from swimming with men violates New York human rights law, which provides for no exclusions from public spaces. The accommodation was instituted in the 90s and there were reportedly no serious objections to the segregated swimming hours ... until an anonymous complainant this year demanded all equal access to the pool all the time.

Based on the anonymous complaint, the pool on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn (once an Orthodox Jewish and African American area, now also occupied by hipsters whose parents may be on the NYT editorial board) changed the pool schedule and removed the special sessions. This change prompted complaints from people in the neighborhood -- ladies who wanted to swim -- and the city reinstated the segregated sessions, saying it's working out a balance now.

Oh Irony

But if it were up to the NYT editorial board, women would get no segregated swim sessions and that is in the interest of equality. The paper strongly objects to religious accommodation for Orthodox Jewish women, claiming it violates human rights law. Meanwhile, the community is claiming that accommodating women is a human rights win. Which is it?

Well, it's hard to say. Technically the law is designed to ensure that no one can be kept out of the pool based on who they are. But realistically, the Orthodox Jewish women of Bedford Avenue are requesting accommodation, not exclusion of others based on bias but recognition of their own needs, which the city has been able to meet with just a few separate sessions per week.

It seems a little disingenuous to shout about equality and human rights law when the accommodation being made for modest women is quite modest itself: a few sessions in which women can swim without the presence of men. This is an accommodation that works for other religious women too, not just Orthodox Jews. Yet the paper sounds confident that the women deserve no consideration, writing, "Let those who cannot abide public, secular rules at a public, secular pool find their own private place to swim when and with whom they see fit."

It's a nice line with a nice rhyme scheme but the sentiment the paper is expressing stinks. What it's saying is that a group of minority women whose rights are few should have their accommodation removed because of equality ... and Brooklyn's men must be able to swim at every pool session or justice will not be served. With a case like this, it's easy to see how logic and human rights law are perverted.

Consult With Counsel

If you are concerned about access to a public space or religious accommodation, talk to a lawyer. Tell your story and find out what recourse, if any, you may have in the law. Many lawyers consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to discuss your situation.

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