Thursday, June 02, 2016

Reasonable Accommodation or a Constitutional Violation?

Picture from the Forward for illustrative purposes only
This is one of those cases where I have to wonder whose rights are being violated by a reasonable accommodation. And what the motivation might actually be behind those complaining about it, including a New York Times editorial.

First let me remind people that don’t know my views with respect to Satmar, that I am not exactly a Chasid. I have serious disagreements with them on a variety of issues. Some of them mentioned in the article. I mention this to make clear that my views on this issue are not generated by any sort of bias on their behalf. From the Forward
Following a string of stories in local media last week, the New York Times editorial page inveighed on Wednesday against a decision by the New York City Parks Department to continue to allow women-only swimming hours at an indoor public pool in Williamsburg.
The pool had set aside time for the exclusive use of female bathers for the past two decades, but was poised to stop after the New York City Commission on Human Rights, a government agency, warned that the gender-segregated hours could break city law. 
OK. I get it. It’s a public pool and ought not to be governed by private religious rules. If a religious group has rules about mixed swimming, they need to build their own facilities. That is in fact what a Jewish Community Center (JCC) does here in my Chicago neighborhood of West Rogers Park. They offer separate swimming hours on various days during specific times to accommodate the vast majority of its membership who are observant. Who prefer not to swim in a pool with people of the opposite sex. 

The JCC is of course a private organization. They can do what they want to accommodate religious Jews. The public pool facility in Williamsburg is not private. So I suppose that technically the New York Times et al may have a point.

But is it really only a religious accommodation to have separate hours for men and women? Is it only the Satmar Chasidim of Williamsburg that would like that kind of accommodation? I have to believe that there are more than a few women in the world that would prefer more modest swimming arrangements – even some that are not Jewish. I have to believe that there are women that when wearing bathing suits do not want to be seen like that by men - some of whom will no doubt be gawking at them.

Now it’s probably true that most women don’t care whether men stare at them or not. It is probably also true that some women dress provocatively on purpose just for the attention they will get from men. There are all kinds of people in the world. However, the more modest woman may actually appreciate an opportunity to continue her modesty while at a pool wearing a bathing suit without the presence of any men

So that even if the source of this separation of the sexes in that pool is based on the religious views of the majority residents that are Satmar Chasidim, it can definitely be appreciated by others of similar modesty. 

There is no worship service there. Nothing religious takes place there at all. Just a group of women who want to enjoy the pool in a state of semi undress knowing that there are no men staring at them . All women are welcome – including non Jewish women. I therefore see this as a reasonable accommodation for a neighborhood desirous of it. And not really a church/state issue at all.

That facility was made for the entire public to enjoy. It should also be noted that this particular accommodation is only being made for women. Men do not have separate swimming hours. So the only people that are inconvenienced by this are the very small minority of secular men in Williamsburg who want to go swimming on the 3 or 4 days a week during hours where these restrictions apply. 

Accommodating that segment, which I have to assume is tiny - by depriving the vast majority of women in that neighborhood from using that facility (and who have until now used it for decades) - seems unfair and petty. Even if those contesting it may be technically right. (Which I am not sure they are based on what I said above.)

As long as there are also hours for mixed swimming - having a few hours a week for these women to enjoy is only fair. Denying them that by using the first amendment as a sledgehammer is just plain mean. In my view, the status quo ought to continue. No one is really hurt by it. And I dare say, neither is the constitution. If on the other hand separate hours for women are disallowed, a lot of people will be.