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Religious group forces NYC public pool to reinstate gender-segregated swimming

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A New York City swimming pool has been forced to maintain gender-segregated swimming hours at the insistence of local Hasidic Jews.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State reported Thursday that the Metropolitan Swimming Pool, located on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn held separate swimming hours for women for more than two decades.

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However, the city’s Commission on Human Rights warned last month that the practice of segregating swimmers by gender violates equal access laws.

It briefly appeared that the Metropolitan Pool would comply with the council’s order to desegregate swimming hours to make the pool available to everyone, but State Assemblyman Dov Hikind strenuously objected to the ruling.

“What happened to being culturally sensitive? I thought we were in the midst of a ‘Progressive Era,’ where we do everything we can to be more accepting of cultural differences,” said Hikind in a statement.

He continued, “In no way is this program for separate gender swimming meant to be discriminatory. Anyone, regardless of their race or religion, is more than welcome to take advantage of the facility’s services. We call upon the City and the Parks Department to reverse this decision and ensure the continuation of this program.”

The Parks Department relented and for now, gender segregated swimming hours will continue.

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Rabbi David Niederman — director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg — told The Forward, “It is a question do we believe in equality or not?”

“Men,” he said, “are much more active. They go, they walk, they go to work. They’re all day outside. Women are more homebound… Especially women who have a lot of children, that type of exercise [swimming] is very healthy for them. Depriving that…it hurts.”

Americans United pointed out that gender-segregated swimming is already available in the area at members-only pools.

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“The Boro Park Y and Shorefront Y both offer women-only swimming hours,” wrote Sarah E. Jones at the Wall of Separation blog. “It’s not clear why Hasidic women apparently prefer the public pool to these options, but their ability to swim in a manner that conforms to their religious practice is not actually dependent upon a public facility’s decision to accommodate them.”

The New York Times Editorial Board weighed in on the matter Wednesday with an essay declaring that forcing everyone male out of the pool for one religious group’s special dispensation is an unlawful use of public property.

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“There is no just way to tell a sweaty Brooklynite on a Sunday afternoon that he should be ejected onto Bedford Avenue because one religious group doesn’t want him in the pool,” the editors wrote.

“The best solution would be for the city to immediately end religious segregation in the pools, and limit the rules of separation only to practical considerations, like keeping lap swimmers away from splashing children. Let those who cannot abide public, secular rules at a public, secular pool find their own private place to swim when and with whom they see fit,” the Times concluded.


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