Swimming Lesson: Public Pool Reinstates Religiously Motivated Sex-Segregated Hours

The pool, located on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, had hosted sex-segregated hours for two decades until, according to the Forward, administrators had intended to suspend the practice after the New York City Commission on Human Rights warned that it violated city law.

A public swimming pool in New York City has reinstated sex-segregated swimming hours at the request of the local Hasidic Jewish community.

The pool, located on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, had hosted sex-segregated hours for two decades until, according to the Forward, administrators had intended to suspend the practice after the New York City Commission on Human Rights warned that it violated city law.

“It is a question do we believe in equality or not?” Rabbi David Niederman told the Forward. “Is our interest to ensure that every citizen should have the opportunity?”

Niederman, who represents the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, argued that Hasidic women would be particularly harmed by the pool’s decision to end the practice.

“Women are more homebound….Especially women who have a lot of children, that type of exercise [swimming] is very healthy for them. Depriving that…it hurts,” he said.

But Hasidic women already have private, sex-segregated swimming options in Brooklyn. The Boro Park Y and Shorefront Y both offer women-only swimming hours. It’s not clear why Hasidic women apparently prefer the public pool to these options, but their ability to swim in a manner that conforms to their religious practice is not actually dependent upon a public facility’s decision to accommodate them.

This also isn’t the first time the Hasidic community has asked the Bedford Avenue pool to accommodate them in ways that may violate the First Amendment. The Forward also reported that in 2013, community leaders asked the pool to hire female lifeguards to work exclusively during women-only swimming hours. That’s an obvious violation of federal and state anti-discrimination law, and the pool rightly refused to accommodate the request at the time.

Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Avi Shafran disagreed with ending the religious accommodation at this public facility.

“Rescinding the special sex-segregated hours would be the equivalent of a sign saying, ‘No people with traditional values allowed,” he wrote in an email to the Forward. “The classical concept of modesty that is embraced by many citizens may have its roots in religious systems. But reasonable accommodation of the needs of such New Yorkers is not an endorsement of any religion.”

Shafran’s argument — that people of faith are entitled to certain reasonable accommodations ---is technically true. It simply doesn’t apply in this case. After all, it is not reasonable or appropriate to ask a public entity to ban taxpaying citizens from using a public pool at certain hours on account of their sex purely to accommodate one religious group. It is particularly egregious to make this request when sex-segregated options already exist.

Pluralism, as defined by the U.S. Constitution and interpreted by the courts, asks us to accommodate certain beliefs – as long as there is no third-party harm. But there is a significant difference between respecting a person’s right to swim only with other self-identified women, and forcing others to observe the same religiously-motivated practice.

“There is no just way to tell a sweaty Brooklynite on a Sunday afternoon that he should be ejected onto Bedford Avenue because one religious group doesn’t want him in the pool,” The New York Times editorial board wrote yesterday. “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.”

Sex-segregation at public pools forces non-Hasidic residents to abide by the dictates of a faith that is not their own. It’s time for the Bedford Avenue pool to desegregate.