the next big issue of religious accommodation on college campuses?
The GW Hatchet, the independent student newspaper at George Washington University has announced that the college will be holding female-only swimming hours in the University’s Lerner Health and Wellness Center – referred to as “HelWell” by students.
I’m sure the argument could be made that this is done for tons of secular reasons… maybe a women’s synchronized swimming team needs practice time without others splashing the water. On that note, perhaps could also have “physical disability hours” where those with disability could float without interference from the able-bodied students? If we look hard enough, we could come up with reasons for every group to have their own hours.
Although today the article unequivocally states these female-only hours are for religious accommodation. It opens with the story of a female student by the name of Zainah Khan who did not bring her bathing suit to campus because her religious belief forbids her from being seen in immodest clothing. In the accompanying photograph, Zainah is wearing a headscarf – specifically, hijab.
Apparently the Muslim Students’ Association has been busy intervening on behalf of Zainah and other female students. The result is “Sister Splash” aka female-only pool time.
“Every week, GW plans to close the HelWell pool to men and will cover the glass door with a dark tarp, giving female Muslim students the chance to swim at their leisure. The University also hired a female lifeguard to be on duty for each week’s event.”
Furthermore, Valdez Williams, the operations manager of the gym, makes it clear that religious accommodation is the cause:
“The girls should be able to swim here,” Williams said. “We will not penalize them because of their religious beliefs.””
GW’s a private school and it’s certainly permissible for them to accommodate the religion of their students. GW was one of the first colleges to include foot baths (aka Islamic Washing Stations) on campus. When foot baths spread to public schools however, like nearby George Mason University and with the spread they “picked up” secular justification.
I think we need to keep an eye on this… after prayer rooms, foot baths, and (excessive) halal food options, I predict this will be the next big issue of religious accommodation on college campuses. I could think of a few secular reasons to legitimately have female-only hours but that’s not the reason here and this is something we need to remember when public colleges and universities jump on the bandwagon.
The problem with religious accommodation on public colleges (besides the first amendment, that is) is that it builds up the idea that religion should be immune from criticism. All of a sudden when someone mentions needing x, y, or z for their religion there seems to be a perceived need to bend over backwards to accommodate. Later we use our imagination to think up some legitimate basis for the change and all of a sudden what was a religious accommodation is a-okay.
UPDATE: I found an interesting article from 2008 on the repercussions of Harvard offering female-only gym hours.