Sunday, April 26, 2015

Religious Rights of Few Cause a Plane Delay For Many

            An El Al flight was delayed for a dispute over religious rights.  The flight was from New York to Tel Aviv on the morning of Rosh Hashanah.  As passengers began to board the plan, some of the Orthodox Jewish men on the flight noticed what they viewed as a severe problem.  Many of these men were assigned seats next to women on the flight.  Orthodox Judaism “forbids physical contact between men and women unless they are first-degree relatives or married to one another”.  Some men asked the women to get up and switch their seat with someone.  Other men offered compensation to women for changing their seat.  Many of the women involved were Jewish.  Several of them complained about being harassed and bullied. 
            The flight took off after a twenty-minute delay.  Many of the men sat in their assigned seats initially then immediately stood up after takeoff.  Several of them remained standing for the eleven-hour flight.  Some were praying in the aisles and refused to sit down.  Many passengers felt uncomfortable or unsafe.  Some complained about difficulty getting to the bathroom or requesting service from a flight attendant.
            El Al used to be a public airline company.  Then, in 2005, the Israeli company privatized.   However, the company has no law regarding gender segregation on their flights.  Therefore, the company did their best to accompany the needs of all their customers.  Being that El Al is a private, Israeli company, the flight crew might have had some biased sympathy toward the Orthodox Jewish men, which is likely to have caused the delay. 
            The Orthodox Jewish men were claiming they had a right to these actions based on the Free Exercise clause.  If they were forced to sit next to a woman on the flight, the state would be supporting a violation of their deeply routed faith.  However, the state has a compelling interest in keeping all passengers seated during the flight for safety reasons.  Turbulence could cause a standing passenger to lose their balance.  This could cause people to fall on other passengers.  Or, in a more extreme case, a passenger could stick his hand out to catch his balance and accidentally hit one of the emergency exit buttons, causing all passengers to be ejected from the plane. 
            In addition, the other passengers on the plane have a right to sit in the seats that they purchased.  One woman said she was asked to move away from her husband even though they specifically bought tickets so they could sit together on the plane.  One person’s religious rights should not be valued higher that that of another’s civil rights.  Therefore, the state would be supporting a violation of some citizen’s civil rights if they forced the women to switch seats.
            This is a tough case because there are fairly significant burdens placed on all parties.  The Orthodox Jewish men have a constitutional right to Freely Exercise their religion.  The other passengers have the right to sit in the seat they paid for.  The airline has an interest in accommodating all needs so they don’t lose any business or face a lawsuit.  The state has an interest in maintaining safe flights as well as protecting the religious rights of these men.
            However, I believe in this case no exemption should be granted and the men should be forced to sit in their assigned seats.  These men are in a public setting in which, if they are allowed to act on their religious belief, those actions will burden the other law-abiding passengers with delays, safety concerns, and difficulty using the restroom on an eleven hour flight.  In addition, I believe the state’s compelling interest to ensure the safety of the passengers and maintain standard procedures on each flight trumps the possible breach in faith of these Orthodox Jewish men.  Although the article describes the planes as having “close quarters” the men could do their best to avoid physical contact despite sitting next to women.  In the future, El Al should provide an alternative option such as providing some tickets with gender segregation to accommodate these religious beliefs. 
            As a side note, I do believe these men had every right to ask women to move their seats.  I don’t understand why they were asking women to move when they could try to move their own seat instead.  However, these men still have the right to express their religious beliefs and ask for an accommodation.  Although many female passengers felt “bullied and harassed”, there is no law for being offended by one’s religion.
            Do you think the Orthodox Jewish men should have been granted an exemption in this case?  What would that exemption entail?  Does it matter that El Al is a private company?  Should religious rights be allowed to burden civil rights?


Ana M. said...

I agree that there was a compelling interest to ensure the safety of all passengers. The men in this case are free to have religious beliefs, but they are not free to impose their religious beliefs on others. Asking the women to move simply because they were uncomfortable was not acceptable. However, I also agree that the men should be accommodated on future flights if they ask to be seated next to other men.

Peter M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter M said...

Orthodox Jewish men do not have the right to be accommodated on El Al flights. El Al is a private company and previously it had been an Israeli company so there is no issue of the state infringing on free exercise rights. I am not aware of any law that forces private companies to accommodate individual religious beliefs. While El Al's policy of assigned seating is inconvenient for Orthodox Jews, El Al is not responsible for accommodating these Orthodox Jewish men.

Liz E said...

I agree that the Orthodox Jewish men do not have a right to exemption here. I believe that if they asked to switch seats with other passengers and they agreed that this would be acceptable. However, with the lack of this consent, the men should have been forced to sit in their assigned seats. In the future, it would make sense, in my opinion, for this private airline to make prior arrangements for passengers with religious preferences of gender seated assignment. However, they should not have been allowed to stand for the duration of the flight or pray in the aisles as this does cause a severe safety risk. The safety of the passengers needs to be placed before religious freedom.

Molly H. said...

I also agree that the Orthodox Jewish men did not have the right to dispute their religious beliefs inside of the plane. A plane is considered public space; a space where gender, sexuality, religion, and other issues of controversy are not appropriate to bring to the forefront. If the passengers would have agreed to switch seats, then this would be a different story, but since many were claiming that they were being harassed or bullied, it goes without saying that these men were forcing their religious beliefs on others who did not share the same faith. I also believe that safety comes before religion in EVERY circumstance, especially with the recent issues of crowded or blocked airline aisles. I believe that the safety of hundreds is more important than the preferences of only a handful, especially in a public setting.