Discrimination on a quasi-public bus

The New York World, a Columbia Journalism School publication, had a big story last week about how a Brooklyn bus line segregates its passengers according to sex. It was picked up by the New York Times the next day:

It does not take long to recognize that the B110 bus in Brooklyn is not like others in the city.

The exterior colors are different: red, white and blue. The price for a single ride is the same, $2.50, but MetroCards are not accepted. The bus does not run Friday night or most of Saturday.

But the most obvious sign that the B110 is different was demonstrated Wednesday by Gitty Green, a 30-year-old mother who boarded the bus on Wednesday with her three children and a stroller and headed straight to the back.

As her two older sons perched on the seats behind her, she looked ahead at the men seated in front, mostly Hasidic Jews in wide-brimmed hats, and said, because her religion dictates the separation of the sexes, she never wondered what it would be like to sit with them.

“It’s such a normal thing for us that women and men are separate,” she said. “Most of the ladies go to the back.”

The B110 bus, which runs between Williamsburg and Borough Park, has been run by Private Transportation Corporation since 1973, under a franchise with the city. And to many in the area, the bus’s tradition of separation comes with little surprise or indignation.

Both The New York World story and the New York Times story had some holes but I found that reading them together was the most helpful. At least as far as the law is concerned. The issue of whether this is a public or private bus line is really everything in a story such as this. But it was hard to understand some of the particulars. Here The New York World was helpful:

The city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee defines a franchise on its website as “the right to occupy or to use the City’s inalienable property, such as streets or parks, for a public service, e.g., transportation.”

The agreement goes back to at least 1973, and last year the franchise paid the city $22,814 to operate the route, according to the New York City Department of Transportation. According to the news site Vos Iz Neias?, which serves the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City and elsewhere, the bus company has a board of consulting rabbis, which decreed that male passengers should ride in the front of the bus and female passengers in the back.

The New York Times, though, quoted Mayor Michael Bloomberg calling it a public bus and saying that if you wanted to do what you want with a bus, rent one. So I'm not entirely sure how the bus company has been able to operate for 40 years with a board of rabbis making decisions. If it's a public bus, why would you let it be owned and operated by private entities? I don't quite get it. The Times says that even thought it's private, the route was awarded via a public process and a spokesman says the bus can't discriminate and is supposed to be available for public use.

I also was deeply curious about the religious basis for the segregation. Here, I thought The New York World did slightly better. Although I still had some questions:

On the morning of October 12, Melissa Franchy boarded the B110 bus in Brooklyn and sat down near the front. For a few minutes she was left in silence, although the other passengers gave her a noticeably wide berth. But as the bus began to fill up, the men told her that she had to get up. Move to the back, they insisted.

They were Orthodox Jews with full beards, sidecurls and long black coats, who told her that she was riding a “private bus” and a “Jewish bus.” When she asked why she had to move, a man scolded her.

“If God makes a rule, you don’t ask ‘Why make the rule?’” he told Franchy, who rode the bus at the invitation of a New York World reporter. She then moved to the back where the other women were sitting. The driver did not intervene in the incident.

The B110 bus travels between Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn. It is open to the public, and has a route number and tall blue bus stop signs like any other city bus. But the B110 operates according to its own distinct rules. The bus line is run by a private company and serves the Hasidic communities of the two neighborhoods. To avoid physical contact between members of opposite sexes that is prohibited by Hasidic tradition, men sit in the front of the bus and women sit in the back.

A little more information but it sounds like a great opportunity to explain to readers much more. How important is this rule? How inviolable? Historically how has this rule been handled in other public accommodation settings? And, of course, what are the implications of permitting such discrimination on religious grounds -- as has, apparently, been the case for at least four decades? Are there other examples of religious groups being able to discriminate publicly on religious grounds? I guess the closest thing we've seen in recent years has been the refusal by certain Muslim taxi cab drivers to transport people or items they find objectionable. How have those cases been resolved? Do anti-sharia activists also work against franchises such as the one in question? Do those who say anti-sharia activists are bigoted loonies have anything to say about carve-outs such as the Brooklyn bus line?

Interesting stories -- and great job breaking the story, The New York World -- and I look forward to some follow-ups.

Image via Wikipedia.

Please respect our Commenting Policy