Swimmin' Orthodox women: A complex synagogue-and-state gender wars story

This isn't your basic separation of synagogue-and-state debate that we have here, care of The Atlantic. At least, I don't think so.

Instead, we have a story that -- with the tsunami of gender-identity news about showers, locker rooms and bathrooms -- raises lots of questions linked to public funds, female privacy, religious liberty and, yes, another dose of GetReligion mirror-image news analysis, as well.

As you would imagine, the lawyers in New York City are pretty used to dealing with complicated questions linked to Orthodox Judaism and public life. Now we have this newsy double-decker headline:

Who Should Public Swimming Pools Serve?
Women-only hours at a location in Brooklyn have ignited a debate about religious accommodation and the separation of church and state.

Now, the story by Adam Chandler does make it clear that the issue of "women only" hours at a public pool is not a new one. This isn't the only case involving religious doctrine and the privacy rights of women. But here is the overture, just to get us started.

Oh, I should issue a trigger alert for readers troubled by the word "theocratic," care of, logically enough, an editorial in The New York Times.

This week, a public pool in Brooklyn became the diving-off point for a new clash over religious law and religious coercion in New York City. For decades, the Metropolitan Recreation Center in Williamsburg has offered gender-separated swimming hours in an accommodation to the heavily Hasidic Jewish community that it serves.
After an anonymous complaint was lodged about its summer schedule, which includes two primetime hours of women-only swimming on Sunday afternoons, the city rescinded and then reaffirmed the right of the pool to maintain its separate hours. Some, a little less anonymously this time, registered dismay over the decision.
“Four times a week this summer -- Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:15 to 11 a.m., and Sunday afternoons from 2:45 to 4:45 -- a public swimming pool on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn will be temporarily unmoored from the laws of New York City and the Constitution, and commonly held principles of fairness and equal access,” a local-edition New York Times editorial began. Explaining that Jewish law forbids women to bathe in front of men, the paper, echoed by a not insignificant chorus on social media, inveighed against what it called “a theocratic view of government services.”

But wait, you may be thinking. Aren't there other cases -- even faith-based cases -- involving female modest and public facilities?

To its credit, The Atlantic gets right to that, spotting the mirror-image hook in this story and noting that normally it's critics on the cultural right who protest "creeping" sharia in these kinds of cases, whenever they involve requests from Muslim leaders. Naturally, this would mean that it is the cultural left that consistently praises attempts to compromise with Muslims and find a way to accommodate their needs.

Want some sweet irony with that public truth? The article noted that, "earlier this year, a rapturous Times feature on a Toronto neighborhood’s efforts to integrate Muslim immigrants led with a scene of a Somali woman enjoying a swim in a public pool during a women-only session."

Chandler finds some predictable, but solid, voices to address this complicated, but actually rather common, legal puzzle. For example:

Ambassador Norman Eisen, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former ethics czar under President Obama, saw no problem with the accommodation in general, but did push back against the pool’s proposed Sunday afternoon hours. ...
Eisen also noted the existence of “hundred of thousands” examples of such accommodation in the United States, including allowing beards and religious head coverings in the military for Jews and Sikhs and others, just one situation of many “where potentially there are more life or death consequences than in a swimming pool.” Others argue that the women-only decree isn’t meant to simply accommodate Jewish women in the community.

Now there's an interesting question for a more in-depth report: Are there other women who, perhaps even for secular reasons, would prefer female-only hours in a public pool? If that is the case, then is it acceptable in some elite circles to honor such a request for secular reasons, but not for religious ones (especially when the request comes from non-Muslims)? Just asking.

Meanwhile, Eisen's main point raises yet another question: Is it acceptable to accommodate the needs of Orthodox Jewish women, but not reasonable if those female-swimming hours happen to fall in prime weekend-hour slots in the lives of Gentiles? Interesting. I'll raise another question: What if, oh, Pentecostal or Mormon women in a less prominent New York City neighborhood requested a slot for the modest?

OK, I have waited until the end to note a gender-wars question that I am sure nagged more than a few attentive GetReligion readers as they worked through this short piece. (I received one such email from one religion-beat patriarch, or own Richard Ostling.)

And that question is? What about the locker rooms? Are the showers, lockers and bathrooms -- during these religious-request female swimming hours -- open or closed to those whose gender identities are female, even if their physical characteristics remain male or mixed?

What about the pool itself? Surely the Hasidic Jewish women are not allowed to enforce a religious or DNA test on the self-proclaimed women who show up for female-only swimming hours? These hours would have to be open to all who are now considered female under the evolving laws of New York? Right?

Maybe that's the hook for the next story.

Please respect our Commenting Policy