The few hours that a public pool in Williamsburg had set aside for “women’s hours” will continue, but will become even fewer, according to an announcement made Wednesday by the Parks Department and the Commission on Human Rights.
The accommodation, which had been in place for over 20 years, became the subject of controversy early last month when the CCHR called for an end to separate hours, saying they violated non-discrimination laws. Amid an outcry from local activists and politicians, the city agreed to maintain the status quo, pending review from the commission.
Commissioner of CCHR Carmelyn P. Malalis said that her office had decided to grant a “limited exemption” for the pool while “balancing the impact on the broader community.”
“Maintaining limited women-only swim hours at these pools will allow all women and girls to enjoy the pool without being asked to compromise their religious beliefs or affiliations and will have a minimal impact on other community members’ ability to access the pool,” she said in a statement.
What some in the community have called a black mark on the decision to accommodate religious sensitivities was wording in the Parks Department’s statement that left a technical loophole for the hours not to be reserved exclusively for women.
Previously, women’s hours were scheduled three times a week for an hour and 45 minutes. This will now be limited to two hours, twice a week.
The changes will also affect a pool in Crown Heights that has had a similar program. However, the men-only session that had existed in Crown Heights has been canceled.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said that “while one can quibble about the adequacy of the compromise accommodation …the mere fact that the city has recognized the importance of accommodation itself deserves our appreciation.
“What the city is essentially saying is that insistence on treating everyone ‘equally’ can result in many being treated unequally. If society is truly committed to making sure that everyone has access to a public benefit like a swimming pool, then it has to take into account the real-world moral or religious dictates by which many conduct their lives.”
Assemblyman Dov Hikind was one of those who had received calls from disappointed swimmers when the cancellation was initially announced. Together with Rabbi David Niederman, president of the UJO of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, they initially brought the issue to the attention of city officials, which included a conversation that Hikind had with Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Following the city’s announcement on Wednesday, Mr. Hikind told Hamodia that, while he plans to press for the reinstatement of the original hours, the decision was an “important victory.”
“This is a win for all women, be they Jewish, Muslim or anybody who wants a certain amount of privacy,” he said. “The mayor and the commission deserve a lot a credit … there are a lot of so-called progressives who are very understanding as long as you agree with them, but when I spoke to the mayor, I felt that he understood what making a reasonable accommodation is really about.”
Soon after the initial review was announced in June, it sparked a mild national debate over the state of religious accommodation in America. A New York Times editorial decried the city’s endorsement of “religious segregation,” and a statement from an executive of the New York Civil Liberties Union called it “a regime of gender discrimination.”
Media watchdogs were quick to point out that only four months earlier, the Times had run a feature praising a nearly identical accommodation that had been made for Muslim refugees from Somalia living in a public housing complex in Toronto. In what observers identified as an attempt to deflect criticism, the paper published a news article and short feature in the weeks following that expressed a far more sympathetic point of view of women who have campaigned for the arrangement to stay in place.
Advocates of religious liberty strongly defended the city’s policy, saying that it fell well within the boundaries of “reasonable accommodation” as defined by civil liberties law. Some bemoaned the storm, saying that it pointed to growing animus toward the idea of protecting the rights of religious Americans.
Professor Michael A. Helfand of Pepperdine University’s School of Law, a recognized expert on religious liberty, called the city’s conclusion “a common-sense approach to balancing the different needs of different citizens in attempts to accommodate some, while not imposing too significant a burden on others.”
Updated Tuesday, July 12, 2016 at 5:13 pm With comments