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How a Brooklyn pool reignited debates over religious accommodation

Posted June 15

A public pool in Brooklyn, New York, is at the center of controversy this week as community members and legal scholars from across the country debate the appropriate limits of religious accommodations.

The Metropolitan Recreation Center has offered women-only swimming hours for members of the Hasidic Jewish community since the 1990s, but the practice was recently called into question by The New York Times editorial board.

"Four times a week this summer — Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:15 to 11:00 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" the editorial noted. It criticized city officials for allowing the religious concerns to overrule public laws ensuring access for everyone.

Supporters of the women-only policy from near and far have criticized The Times, noting that the current accommodation is meaningful not only to Hasidic Jewish women, who cannot swim in front of men due to religious teachings, but also to any woman who is concerned about modesty.

"Why deprive them?" said New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind to the Associated Press.

The challenge of responding to requests for religious accommodations without inconveniencing others has grabbed national headlines before, such as in 2015, when The New York Times explored how airlines respond to Orthodox Jewish men who don't want to sit next to women.

Flight attendants often try to sort out these requests by asking nearby passengers to trade seats, but confusion about Orthodox Jewish beliefs can complicate the process, the article noted.

In any discussion of religious accommodations, participants need to ensure they're on the same page about what a particular religion teaches and why the adjustment to a certain policy is necessary, wrote Danielle McLaughlin, the director of education emerita for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, for The Huffington Post last year.

"The growing diversity of our society may require us to teach one another about our views, values and beliefs," she said, noting that people are more likely to sympathize with a faith community when they understand its members' outlook.

However, these deeper conversations could still lead to mixed results, as The New York Times article on airlines noted. One woman told the Times that she wasn't going to jeopardize her husband's comfort (he prefers aisle seats) in order to help out the Orthodox Jewish man next to her.

People hoping for a religious accommodation should be prepared to compromise, as Mark Fowler, deputy chief executive officer of Tanenbaum, an organization focusing on improving interfaith relationships in workplaces, explained to the Deseret News in April.

"The employee can make a request and the employer, looking at the reality of the amount of work, schedule challenges and who can step-in (for that employee), can counter offer," he said.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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