There's that hijab story again

500x500 1519f976d92fb736a34ae99ad75c77e5Let me ask, once again, a question that I keep asking at this here weblog: When did it become liberal for liberals to attack conservatives for defending the rights of liberals? Only, now that I stop and think about it, that really isn't the story that is unfolding right now at Harvard University (photo), where -- the story seems to have received a surprisingly small amount of mainstream coverage -- administrators have decided to close one of its campus gyms for a few hours every week so that Muslim women can exercise without men seeing them.

This is a story where some liberals are upset about religious expression in the public square and some are not. Meanwhile, a thinking reporter would have to ask how religious traditionalists of other faiths -- Orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians, for example -- would be received if they asked Harvard's leaders for a similar bending of rules in the name of creating a more welcoming environment for faith.

This is an emerging story, again. Ask the Archbishop of Canterbury.

This is the rare case where GetReligion readers really have to look to the op-ed pages -- territory we usually avoid -- to see where a hard-news story came from and where it might be going. Thus, here is a crucial piece of the "Hijabs at a Harvard Gym" column by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post, who combines this story with another and offers some enlightening background. She begins by noting that American has moved from the era of "God and Man at Yale," to Allah and Woman at Harvard.

Leave it to the Ivy League to abandon its cherished secularism -- in defense of Islam. My reaction is more along the lines of: "Get a grip." It's reasonable to set aside a few off-peak hours at one of Harvard's many gyms. It's not offensive to have the call to prayer echoing across Harvard Yard, any more than it is to ring church bells or erect a giant menorah there.

I share the apprehensions stirred up by the more radical followers of Islam, with their drive to restore the caliphate and subjugate women. But I come to this issue as a member of another minority religion, Judaism, whose adherents often seek flexibility from the majority culture in order to practice their faith. As with Islam, my religion's more observant believers endorse practices -- segregating the sexes at prayer, excluding women from engaging in certain rituals -- that I find disturbing, bordering on offensive. I have relatives who would shrink from shaking my hand. Still, I would defend to the death their right not to touch me.

Certainly, accommodation has its limits. Ten years ago, Orthodox Jewish students at Yale sued -- unsuccessfully -- after the university refused their requests to live off campus because, they claimed, living in co-ed dorms would violate their religious principles. Muslim students at Australian universities are demanding course schedules that fit into their prayer times and separate, female-only dining areas. In Britain, female Muslim medical students have objected to being required to roll up their sleeves to scrub and to exposing their forearms in the operating room. Fine with me if they need a place to scrub in private, but your right to exercise your religion ends where my safety begins.

So Harvard got this one right, she says. Whether you agree with her or not, this means that this hijab in the public square story is not going to go away and reporters will need to deal with that.

But the question remains: Can secularists and the political left (these groups are not always one and the same, after all) compromise with traditional Muslims and not with traditional believers in other faiths? Why couldn't Yale allow the Orthodox Jews to avoid co-ed dorms, if there was a way to do that without affecting the rights of others? Will academic and government elites allow equal access laws to apply to Wiccan groups and fundamentalist Christian groups, as well as to Muslim fellowships?

Let us know when you see this story pop up in your local newspapers. It's coming soon, to a state university or elite private school near you.

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