Sunday, October 23, 2011

Back to Segregated Buses

The B110 bus in Brooklyn travels between Williamsburg and Borough Park and serves the Hasidic Jews of these communities. The line is run through a private company, Private Transportation Corporation, which pays the city for it’s right to operate and provide this public service. The company has a board of consulting Rabbis who declared that males should ride in the front and females in the back in accordance with their religious belief that prohibits physical contact between the two sexes.

The bus line is a private franchise that provides a public service and is thus considered a public accommodation. Therefore they cannot set different standards for different groups of people. Anti-Discrimination laws at the city, state, and federal levels prevent gender discrimination even though this is a private company, it was granted it’s route through a public process and serves many residents who are not Orthodox Jews.

This case is important in evaluating the complex relationship between free exercise of religion and discrimination. We have come across many cases where these two laws, both central to what many believe to be basic American principles, conflict. In Bob Jones University v. United States the court ruled that there is no religious exemption for schools practicing racial discrimination. This case cited the compelling state interest in ending segregation. The case also draws similarities to our discussions of faith-based initiatives. Although this is a private company and the government is not funding its services, as it does with faith-based initiative, they are providing a public service in accordance with one religious group’s beliefs specifically.

Using the Lemon test I believe that this practice passes each of the requirements. The secular legislative purpose is to provide transportation for the citizens of these townships. Its principal effect may only slightly advantage those who are practicing Hasidic Jews but I believe it does so to no clear advantage. Finally, because this run by a private company and the state is not funding this bus route I see no excessive government entanglement with religion.

Although it seems to pass the Lemon test, this shows that these requirements may be an insufficient test in determining free exercise cases. It has been ruled and used as precedent in the Bob Jones case that “the state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest.” In this case, we must ask if this anti-discrimination law hinders the Orthodox Jews religious free exercise. Furthermore, even if it does violate their free exercise, is there enough of a compelling state interest that an exemption should be denied.

I believe that on a basic level it does violate their free exercise of religion. Forcing them to disregard this tenet of their religious practice does place a burden on them. Yet as the court ruled in Bob Jones University v. United States, this burden will not make it impossible to practice their religious beliefs.

The compelling state interests in outlawing any forms of gender discrimination outweigh the burden placed on this religious group. The unequal rights of men and women are still struggling to be overcome in the workplace and in the assumptions about duties in the home. The government cannot afford to ignore any issues that support gender segregation in public places.

This will not outlaw the practice in a private setting but does eliminate segregation on these bus routes open to the public. As Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stated, the group can instead rent a bus in which practicing this religious belief is permitted. This way, those men who truly feel uncomfortable sitting near women may ride this bus where they know their religious values will be enforced. On the other end, those who wish to continue riding this bus open to the public may do so and follow the anti-discrimination laws that all other bus routes follow.


Harry R. said...

I do not feel that the compelling state interest of enforcing anti-discrimination applies in this instance. The bus company has been operating for nearly four decades, and in that time, nearly 100% of the bus line's users have not objected to the religious practices signifying support of the religious beliefs of Hasidic Jews. If the bus line is forced to end this practice, the Hasidic Jews will stop riding the bus, forcing the bus company out of business. Therefore, due to the practical usage of the bus line in this instance, I feel that a religious exemption should be granted.

Kathryn M. said...

I agree with Harry that there is not compelling state interest to limit Hasidic Jews’ religious practices of gender segregation within a privately owned company. Since the bus company does not receive benefits from the State, it does not have to meet “certain common law standards of charity” and agree with “established public policy” as enforced by Bob Jones University v. United States. Furthermore, the court could use Pierce v. Society of Sisters as precedent to assert that the “rights guaranteed by the Constitution may not be abridged by legislation which has no reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the State.” Therefore, the B110 bus cannot be deprived of its opportunity to conduct business and attain property without the due process of law.

TNTbo said...

As a privately owned business, I believe they can allow this religious tradition to continue. Although segregation is most closely affiliated with racial discrimination, this is a matter of restricting sexual contact and not necessarily discriminating against either sex. Although sitting in the front of the bus is often a sign of privilege, the Jews are not imposing this religious law to make things easier on the men. Yes, it is an inconvenience for those women who are not Hasidic Jews, but they are the minority on a privately owned bus dominated by this particular group. If the bus were to remove this privilege, I feel that they would be infringing upon their right to practice their faith.