Sunday, October 23, 2011

Women must sit in the back of the bus?

The New York World reported this week that a bus that serves two Hasidic communities in Brooklyn, NY is segregated by sex: men in front, women in back. According to the article, nearly all of the passengers are "Orthodox Jews with full beards, side curls and long black coats." One woman, who was not a part of the community, sat down in the front and was asked to move to the back of the bus. She was told that the bus is a "private bus."

The B110 bus travels between Williamsburg and Borough Park, and like any other New York City bus, it has a route number and makes stops at the blue bus stop signs. However, the bus is not operated by the Department of Transportation - instead, a private company pays the city to use the route. The private company then allows its predominately Jewish clientele to enforce the Hasidic rule on the bus. The company actually has "a board of consulting rabbis," which made the rule that men sit in the front of the bus and women in the back. The purpose of the rule is to avoid physical contact between men and women in accordance with Hasidic tradition.

The problem is that even though a private company is running the bus route, it is still paying the city to provide a public service. This makes it subject to anti-discrimination law. The Department of Transportation, which has had this agreement in place since the 1970s, has decided to look into the incident, acknowledging that the private company must "comply with all applicable laws."

The article also states that, as of this week, there is no record of the bus line being granted a religious exemption from anti-discrimination laws. In my opinion, without such an exemption, this is a clear-cut case of discrimination. The question here is then one of free exercise. Should the Hasidic communities in Brooklyn in which the bus runs be able to enforce religious laws on a public bus?

I believe that the people of these communities and the private bus company do not have the right to enforce religious laws on the bus. The company is paying the city to provide service on a public route, and therefore the route is not private - it is still a public bus route. This is an appropriate situation to apply the belief/act distinction. The people in these communities have every right to believe that women and men ought to be segregated on buses. They even have the right to choose their own seats such that they are segregated while on the bus. But the Hasidic passengers have no right to tell any given passenger where to sit. Someone who may not share their views should not be told where to sit on a public bus. I don't think they should have other people's religious views imposed upon them.

Do you think the bus route should be granted a religious exemption from anti-discrimination laws? And if you think it should be granted an exemption, might that constitute an establishment of religion because the public bus line would be run in accordance with a specific religion's social norms?

1 comment:

Harry R. said...

I believe that the bus company in question should be granted a religious exemption in this instance. The bus company has been operating in this district in New York since 1973, and in the nearly four decades of its operation, this is the first time a complaint has been made about its operation. That leads me to believe that nearly 100% of the users of this bus line support Hasidic traditions. If these bus lines did not follow these beliefs, Hasidic Jews would stop using the service, and the legal enforcement would put the bus line out of business.