An only-in-New-York story about a public swimming pool that offered women-only swim periods for the area’s Orthodox community turned into a full-blown media firestorm when the New York Times weighed in on the subject.
The pool, located in the heavily Orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, had been offering women-only hours since the 1990s to accommodate those whose religious sensitivities forbid women and men from swimming together.
Last week, the Parks Department cancelled the women-only swim periods after an anonymous complaint was made to the city’s Commission on Human Rights, only to reverse itself following objections by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox politician representing the nearby Borough Park and Midwood neighborhoods.
That reversal led to a strongly worded editorial in the Times Wednesday, which asserted that setting aside a special time for a religious group at a public facility violated “the laws of New York City and the Constitution, and commonly held principles of fairness and equal access.”
“The city’s human rights law is quite clear that public accommodations like a swimming pool cannot exclude people based on sex,” the editorial argued, adding that the current practice has a “a strong odor of religious intrusion into a secular space.”
The Times editorial drew a swift backlash from parts of the Jewish community, who accused the paper of unfairly rejecting a reasonable religious accommodation and of applying a double standard to Orthodox Jews.
Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of the New York Sun and a former editor of the Forward, wrote a heated missive in the New York Post titled “Let My People Swim — and Damn the New York Times.” [...]
In Tablet Magazine, Yair Rosenberg pointed to examples in St. Paul, Minnesota, San Diego and Seattle in which accommodations made for Muslim women to swim without men were applauded in some cases and sparked controversy in others. But he questioned why the Times editorial failed to mention these precedents and focused exclusively on Orthodox Jews.
“It is exceedingly odd that the national paper of record only excoriated the practice of sex-segregated swimming when it became aware of religious Jews engaging in it, and even then, omitted the identical practices of religious Muslims,” he writes.[...]