Saturday, September 3, 2011

Clear-Cut Religious Discrimination?

On Tuesday August 30, a group of Muslims with the Muslim American Society of New York (MASNY) attended Playland Park in celebration of the end of Ramadan. An altercation broke out after word spread that the Muslim women could not go on certain rides wearing their religious garb, the hijab, the wearing of which would violate the parks no headgear policy for those rides, and the removal of which would violate the wearer’s religious convictions. Cries of Muslim discrimination were issued, tempers ran high, violence ensued, and the police arrived.

Does the park’s headgear ban for some rides constitute religious discrimination and were the rights of the Muslim women violated? Certainly not. The ban is one of safety for all ride-goers and pertains to all headgear wearers. Park employees even undergo training sessions to ensure sensibility to handicapped and religious persons who need to be accommodated in order to enjoy certain rides while maintaining the safety of others. The rule (“Some rides do not allow backpacks, purses or head gear of any kind,”) which is clearly stated on the park’s website, has been in place for the past three years, and is not unique to amusement parks. The rule is reasonable and demonstrates precaution particularly considering that as of 2007 and in less than four years there had been three deaths at Playland.

Some may argue that the park should allow for religious exemptions or allow Muslim women to sign waivers stating that in the incident of an accident resulting from the religious wearing of the hijab, the family would not sue the park. Such exemptions would not be prudent because such exemptions would endanger the lives of others. Certain rights, even religious, stop when the carrying out of those rights present a potential and clear (i.e. one of causality) endangerment to the lives of others.

The Muslims wearing hijabs were not singled out because of their religion but because their religious garb violated park safety standards. Ola Salem was told she could accompany her younger sister on a fast-moving ride permitting she not wear her hijab as a safety precaution. Salem recalls, “they [the park employees] said no because my headgear.” Surly, if Salem had removed her hijab, she could have gone on the ride, yet Salem is convinced that “it’s not my headgear, it’s my religion.” Unfortunately Salem and many of the other Muslim attendees are misguided in their assessment of the situation. The group was allowed to enter the park, they were allowed to go on rides allowing headgear, and they were allowed to go on rides with headgear restrictions if they removed their hijabs. The headgear restriction does not only apply to those who are Muslim, but to secular headgear wearers and even to other religious headgear wearers. A security officer related a past experience when Jewish boys were asked to remove their yarmulkes before riding a park coaster. The boys decided to pocket their yarmulkes and one of them removed his glasses. They recognized a conflict between their religious beliefs and public safety restrictions and decided that taking off their yarmulkes would be worth the thrill of the coaster. Miraculously no one cried religious discrimination.

Rules are rules. There are civil rules and there are religious rules. When they conflict, the believer has to make a decision. For the Muslim women at Playland, the decision was between forgoing a religious practice and forgoing a ride at an amusement park. They chose the latter while adding a twist of their own.

Furthermore, MASNY, which organized the trip, was aware of the headgear restriction during the trip’s planning stage, according to Playland’s executive office. MASNY, an arm of the Muslim American Society, which was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1992, being a Muslim group, was well aware that many potential trip participants would be wearing hijabs. The Journal News uncovered the email correspondence between Playland event coordinator Adam Harvey and MASNY president Hatem Gawaly. The emails reveal that Harvey responded to Gawaly’s query regarding the headgear restriction’s application to hijabs by stating that the hijab could not be worn on certain rides. Humayun Haq, who saw the trip’s advertising flier before its publication, shared his concern via email to MASNY officials that the flier failed to mention anything regarding handicap accessibility and headgear restrictions – the flier was published without any such mentions. Whether or not MASNY told its participants of the ban or whether they had more sinister plans certainly goes beyond the purpose of this blog assignment. However, it does make one wonder about MASNY’s decision to attend the park and about its improper advertisement.

Discrimination did not take place. The Muslim women were simply told to comply with a long-standing rule. The Muslims were allowed into the park, to go on rides without headgear bans, and to go on rides with the ban permitting they make themselves physically fit to ride for safety reasons extending to the safety of others. Park employees instruct all wearers, both religious (not only Muslims) and secular, to remove headgear. Therefore, I conclude that the notion of religious discrimination as it pertains to Tuesday’s events to be preposterous.


Harry R. said...

I agree with Ashley that the request of the park officials did not violate the rights of the Muslim women. The point raised considering the choice of the guests to comply with the ride rules or with religious rules is significant. The guests were given the chance to choose for themselves. They were not forced to remove their headgear and go on the ride, nor were they forced to wear their headgear and not go on the ride. This choice was given to the guests with full respect for their religious beliefs.

Jack Ness said...

I could not agree more with Ashley's stance on this issue. It would be a different scenario if the members of MASNY were not told about the headgear safety precautions, but this was not the case. The Muslim members of this organization should have known what they were getting into and accepted the efforts of Playland to protect their lives. It is hard to believe that this organization claims discrimination and started violence against people who were simply trying to help and protect them.

PamelaR said...

I agree that there was no basis in this situation to claim religious discrimination, since the restriction on headgear was solely based on safety and a blanket rule for every person, regardless of religion and ethnicity. However, although the comment by the author of this post about how religious persons who wish to wear headgear must choose between their religious rules and person safety was a little unsettling-- true, the ride participants could sign a waiver to relieve the park of liability, but isn't there also something the amusement park could do to relieve some of the burden put on religious persons by this rule? Are there ways to make the rides more headgear friendly--not just to benefit those who wear religious headgear, but as a courtesy to cancer patients who choose to cover their heads, or those who need to wear protective headgear?

Kathryn M. said...

Considering that the group of Muslims was permitted to enter the park and also go on rides that allow for headgear, it is apparent that the park’s headgear restrictions on select rides are safety precautions. Moreover, the park did not “prohib[it] the free exercise” of Islam, rather the Muslim guests chose to refrain from removing their headgear, despite well published rules and also notification by Playland to the MASNY. Yet, do similar rules apply to people who have long hair that is not secured by a hair band? If not, then MASNY may have a case.