Tuesday, October 11, 2011

TheTyranny of a Religious Minority?

How far should an airline go to accommodate its religious passengers? That question was recently put to the test by an Orthodox couple and their son while traveling from New York to Milwaukee.

They had a flight scheduled at about 11:30 AM. It was however delayed until 4:40 PM that day. They boarded the plane then and waited a half hour before the pilot announced that there would be yet another delay of about an hour. Worried that they might not make it back in time for Shabbos – they asked if they could be let off the plane. They were granted their request.

The plane returned to the gate, let off that family losing their place in line on the runway for take-off. This eventually caused that flight to be cancled.

Was the pilot right to have accommodated them? The question was asked of New York Times ethicist Ariel Kaminer.

He responded that the pilot was wrong and that he should not have done it. Here is how he puts it:

Passengers bought tickets in the belief that the airline’s primary goal was to get them to their destination as close to schedule as possible. Once they are buckled in and the doors are locked, it’s not ethical to announce that the rules have changed and that a personal (as opposed to medical) emergency — no matter how compelling — might take precedence.

That would be just as true if turning back to the gate had merely cost a few minutes rather than doomed the flight entirely, since on a plane even a slight delay can ripple outward, from the people in the cabin to the people who are meeting them to the passengers waiting to board the plane for the next leg of its journey and so on. It would also be true if the personal emergency were secular in nature — if someone suddenly realized she’d made a professional mistake that might cost her millions, and she had to race back to the office to fix it.

If a religious practice does nothing to harm others, then airlines should make a reasonable effort to accommodate it. But though that family has every right to observe the Sabbath, it has no right to enlist an airplane full of captive bystanders to help them do so. By boarding a flight on a Friday afternoon, the family knowingly risked running into trouble. The risk was theirs alone to bear.

I find it difficult to disagree with him.

I appreciate the freedom and guaranteed rights granted to religious people in America. It speaks volumes about this country and its people to see the lengths to which they go to honor that commitment. But I’m not sure accommodating the few at the expense of the many is what the first amendment is all about.

First, I’m not even sure what Halacha would be violated had they remained on the flight as Shabbos descended upon them in flight. Second this is exactly the kind of thing that turns people into anti-Semites. Or exacerbates latent anti Semitic feelings in those predisposed to them. Third, to board a plane so close to Shabbos puts the responsibility for any Chilul Shabbos squarely on the couple who took the chance on flying so close to Shabbos. They put themselves into a precarious situation and now they are asking everyone on the plane to pay for it by being tremendously inconvenienced.

Although the ethicist seemed to be a bit heavy handed - I tend to agree that the right ethical thing to have done would have been to tell that couple that the airline appreciated their rights to practice Judaism as they saw fit, but not at the expense of everyone else. And then taken off as planned.