Opinion

The case for gender-segregated beaches

Thousands gather on Coney Island Beach before Fourth of July fireworks on July 4, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

(RNS) — News that New York City Councilman Chaim Deutsch has rented a city-owned Brooklyn beach for separate male and female swim days is creating excitement among devout Muslims and Orthodox Jews whose religious beliefs prohibit them from frequenting pools and beaches where mixed-gender swimming is the norm.

But it’s also provoking outrage from critics who fear that designating a public beach for separate swimming — even for just the two days this summer that Deutsch has contracted with a university — violates the separation between religion and state as well as gender discrimination laws.

In an interview, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, labeled Deutsch’s initiative “chutzpah.”

“People don’t have the right to impose gender discrimination on a city beach simply because it’s mandated by their religion,” Lieberman said. “It is one thing for the city to provide reasonable accommodation for religious practice, and quite another to limit the public access of everybody else.”

Deutsch told the New York Post that “a lot” of his Orthodox Jewish and Muslim constituents have never been able to go to the beach before due to their adherence to religious teachings on modesty. He wants to give them an experience that others take for granted.

The beach days, one exclusively for men and boys, the other exclusively for women and girls, at Kingsborough Community College are scheduled for Friday (June 29) and July 27, respectively. Deutsch is seeking private donations to pay lifeguards and otherwise fund the days.

The beach would otherwise be closed on these days, said Deutsch.

It is understandable that many Americans are wary of anything that smacks of segregation. It evokes the terrible years when it was illegal for African-Americans to attend the same schools and drink out of the same water fountains as white Americans.

Those against segregation insist that no one, regardless of race, color, religion or sexual orientation, should be denied access to public places. If a beach is accessible only to women or men, they argue, it discriminates on the basis of gender and could exclude transgender and non-gender-conforming bathers.

This is an important point.

But what of the many American beaches that cater to a certain group of people, arguably at the expense of others?

What of gay beaches and nude and topless beaches?

What of “dog beaches,” where dogs are legally allowed to run around without a leash?

And what of the vast majority of beaches that aren’t accessible to someone using a wheelchair?

Civil rights advocates rightly point out that all of these beaches are technically open to everyone, and that it is up to the individual whether or not to visit them. But if your personal sensibility or religious faith prohibits you from visiting a topless beach, you have a serious dog phobia or use a wheelchair, these beaches are, for all intents and purposes, off-limits to you.

In all three cases, there are alternative beaches that better suit their needs (not that a person with a disability should have to find one, according to the law).

That’s not the case for the devout. There isn’t a single public beach in New York that caters solely to this demographic, although two public swimming pools in Brooklyn do offer very limited gender-separated swimming hours for women.

Even these few hours were under threat in 2016, after the city received an anonymous complaint. It ultimately defended these hours as an “important accommodation” to women “who may feel more secure and comfortable in a single-sex environment,” the Parks Department told The New York Times.

There was precedent. At New York City’s first municipal pool, which opened in 1906, women swam three days a week, men the other four, according to a July 2017 New York Times opinion column, “Why Can’t We All Just Go to the Pool?”

Deutsch’s plan calls for the same arrangement for two days. And if, as Lieberman says, it’s OK to make “reasonable accommodations” for religious communities, why can’t this be one of them? If devout women and men have only two choices, to go to a mixed-gender beach or stay home, is this the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution?

In Israel, where I live, every major municipality with a beach is required by law to offer both a mixed-gender beach and a beach that allows males and females to swim separately on alternate days. People who don’t feel comfortable in mixed-gender settings — including secular women who don’t want to be sexually harassed — can frolic in the waves and teach their children how to swim, a skill that could save their lives one day.

With the opposite sex not looking on, women who ordinarily wear long skirts or Islamic robes feel confident donning water-safe swimwear that won’t weigh them down in the water and pose a drowning risk.

America isn’t Israel, and a legal case can be made against gender-separated beaches and pools. But there is also a case to be made for the dignity, respect and well-being of religious and other people who, for reasons of faith, sexual trauma or simple preference, would like to spend a day at the beach — on their terms.

(Michele Chabin is a correspondent for RNS based in Israel. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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Michele Chabin

43 Comments

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  • Maybe if modesty weren’t a lost virtue this issue of decent beaches wouldn’t be that big a problem for most people.

    I got my “free” (unasked for) copy of ESPN Magazine today: It’s the “naked body” issue. Pornography.

    I cancelled it promptly.

    Modesty is,as Wendy Shalit said in her book, an erotic vritue.

    A woman who understands what real modesty is becomes far more attractive to males, in a deeper and more human (less animalistic) sense.

    Real good attracts.

  • Pornography? I think that’s an exaggeration. A ploy on ESPN’s part to increase sales, yet. Aren’t men in the issue too? You seem to leave them out when discussing modesty.

  • No this should not be done at a public beach…only at private places. Government has no business segregating people in public spaces.

  • Eye of the beholder. Everybody is free to be modest anywhere, anytime…but each should also be free to be immodest.

    There is no such thing as a lost virtue. Most things no longer practiced…have been lost for good reason.

  • I would agree that these beach segregation promoters should be permitted to rent a beach place from something publicly owned. A rent arrangement makes it a temporarily private beach. But be prepared for the nudists to ask for the same.

  • What possible reason, aside from insane right wing abrahamic religious reasons, could there possibly be to segregate a public beach, aside from making sure that the snowflake sensibilities of people obsessed with sex are not even remotely warmed up?

    If sex and the human body so frightens and obsesses you, perhaps you should never leave the house. Or move to Iran.

    Special rights for religious people because they are religious. It’s a public beach. If you want a segregated beach, buy your own goddam beach, and then you can do whatever you like. But of course, this is really about controlling other people, isn’t it?

    With all of the problems in the world, THEY obsess about dangly bits.

  • Actually one isn’t free to be immodest. You can’t show your piddling junk in public.

  • Like honesty, gratitude, industriousness, generosity, charity, a sporting spirit…

    yes these are in such deep supply today, yeah?

    There’s good reason for their shortage?

    Virtues are habits, practice in doing a true good.

    Vices are either deficits of these virtues, or excesses.

    Virtues are the golden mean, sitting in between two or more vices.

  • Wow…that picture is striking. How incredibly fat and intemperate Americans have let themselves become. Too much love of comfort and consolation from food-stuffs.

    America needs to tighten up.

  • Every person has the right to make decisions for themselves based on religion.

    No person has the right to make decisions for another person based on religion. Ever. Period. Full stop.

    Because of my religious belief, I will not go to that public beach. Fine.
    Because of my religious belief, you will not go to that public beach. Not. Acceptable. Ever.

    Because of my religious belief, I will wear certain clothing. Fine.
    Because of my religious belief, you will wear certain clothing. Not. Acceptable. Ever.

    Because of my religious belief, I will not participate in sports leagues on certain days. Fine.
    Because of my religious belief, you will not participate in sports leagues on certain days. Not. Acceptable. Ever.

    Religious freedom means nobody dictates the behavior and choices of another based on religion.

    If you choose to follow a misogynist religious belief that villifies females for being born with female anatomy, that is your choice. Not one person on this planet must put on clothing, stay away from a public beach, change seats on public transportation, or take any action to humor or advance your misogyny.

    Pandering to bigots is against my personal beliefs.

  • I guess that since you have been alive for almost 800 years, it’s OK that you are complaining about a lack of virtues in society.

    You sound like people in my grandmother’s generation — and that is going back quite a bit, since I am now a grandmother myself. However, it’s said that Aristotle also complained about the loss of virtue among the young. But I guess that you are in good company…..

  • The comparisons that you make are a bit off the mark. While it’s very true that many people with disabilities, specifically those who need wheelchairs, but also those who have difficulty walking on sand, have very limited access to beaches. However, I have not heard of any instance of wheelchair-bound people advocating that certain beaches be closed to others, so that ramps might be built for better access. Neither have I heard of people on nude or topless beaches requiring that those who prefer to remain clothed not be permitted access.

    I do understand that there are religious groups that consider women to be such a sign of temptation that the (ie women) are not permitted to go to mixed-gender beaches, or swimming pools. However, those religious groups are free to buy, lease or rent private property and have gender-segregated beach access. They can build, rent, or lease private pools. People who own private property can restrict access, as long as the property is not considered a public accommodation. But restricting access to public beaches to accommodate the religious preferences of one group or another does seem to me to be a violation of church-state separation.

    Of course, given today’s Supreme Court (and even more so, if the current president is able to appoint his choice), anything is possible.

  • Things come and go, and right now they are going….divorce, abuse, lax morality.

    They’ll tighten up again, perhaps as the barren adults and self absorbed and stingy adults die.

  • Praise be that our female fundamentalist christian citizens wear one-piece and bikini swim suits and don’t insist on segregated beaches.

  • “Which, btw, is about you all you ever write about here” (copied & pasted 7/2/18 @ 1:44 pm EDST).

    Leave out one of your “you”s, mon ami. Were you distracted by Ben’s reference to “dangly bits”???

  • You’re a stick-in-the-mud. Stay in your swimming hole on the farm where you can get muddy all you want.

  • “Actually one isn’t free to be immodest.”

    So nudity is “immodest”??? Tell that to God, Adam, and Eve. God punished the first parents because they ate an apple, not because they were naked.

  • “How incredibly fat and intemperate Americans have let themselves become.”

    On this point, we agree (and I need to lose at least 30 pounds).

  • Absolutely.

    Imagine a world where he beliefs of fundamentalists don’t automatically include the lives and beliefs of other people.

    It ain’t BobWorld for shure.

  • having string bikinis around 12-16 year old boys is immodest.

    It’s an act against charity.

  • So, if a lad wearing a “string bikini” is being “immodest”, remove the bikini!

  • A former cathedral pastor suggested such folks have nothing better to do but complain about others. It got me to thinking: Perhaps these folks are sweatin’ raindrops in order to be “good Krishtuns” and don’t like the idea that God might not condemn “sinners”, after all. They see God as the Vindictive Punisher, but this “God = Love” stuff is makin’ ’em wonder if they’ve been “buffaloed” all this time. Might it be true that God loves them, too??? Perish the thought!

  • This is a disordered view. It’s typical of the decay we see today nearly everywhere. A cavalier approach to a divine gift of intimacy. Another indifferent profanation and mockery of the true good.

  • Nah. “God is Love” coming from those types means “god loves me. ME. ME. ME'”

    Not “you”.

    😬😜😘

  • Your view stems ultimately from the idea that spirit is good, flesh is evil. Although Jesus may have worn a loin cloth while bathing , the idea of immodesty in lack of attire is a culturally derived one. The idea that flesh is evil, for example, negates the significance in Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, i.e., God becoming human in the flesh and being like us in all ways but sin. As to your mention of “intimacy”, it can be realized with or without attire.

  • WrongO.

    That’s a simplistic quippy comment that comes off your fingers far too often and far too carelessly.

    A more mature and Catholic understanding is that our nature is good, God created it.

    But man, owing to Original Sin, has difficulty in always knowing the truth (intellect) and doing the good (will).

    So we fall short…we fall in to bad habits, or sin, or grave sin..we can become too attached to created goods…we can get our priorities out of sort, disordered.

    Our intellect can become “clouded” to the truth, and our will can become enslaved to the senses.

    The interior ordering that God wants us to have can become disordered.

    There. That’s a better summary of my viewpoint.

  • Thank you for sharing your viewpoint. Please understand I am not accusing you of being a heretic, but the underlying theme of your previous comments is just as I described it: matter is evil, and spirit is good. This is the heresy of Dualism, which has reared its ugly head from time to time since the earliest days of the Christian faith. It has been condemned by the Church of Rome.

    The doctrine of Original Sin is a too simplistic and one-sided view that purportedly accounts for human moral failings. Are we really “free” to sin as Rome teaches? Or, are we truly “lost” in our sin as Jesus teaches in Luke 15’s three parables? I’ll take Jesus’ teaching over that of Augustine et al.

    When one gets up in the morning and goes to sleep at night, who makes this person able to breathe, initiate acts, carry them out, and complete them before falling asleep?

  • Joseph, you know a lot a less of what you write about, and especially who you think you’re writing about.

  • The only person I’m writing about in terms of opinion is moi. Your name sake was certainly entitled to his opinion and to share it, but that’s the point: Aquinas was a person of his time, not our time. I should point out, too, that I would not avail myself of a nude beach. Why? Not for sake of modesty but, instead, for preserving the mystery of my manhood, such as it is :o) If you’re a Dominican and a woman, I wouldn’t want to turn you off or — heaven forbid — turn you on :o) For all I know, you might be ugly as sin!

    In all modesty, I am a modest person of sorts.

  • Very little about what Aquinas wrote isn’t of our time.

    You can pick at this or that infinitesimally small point of his (as petulant liberals seem wont to do) and hope that it washes the rest of it away, but it won’t. Because far brighter minds have looked at what he said, and looked at what Aristotle said, and decided that Aquinas did in fact write profound truths about human and divine matters.

    Aquinas looked at Aristotle..and saw that Aristotle wrote truthfully about many matters….and so he in turn connected what Aristotle discovered and “perfected” it, connecting Aristotle’s writing about the virtues and moral behavior and connecting this corpus of a pagan to unchangeable truths, consistent with Scripture.

  • “Because far brighter minds have looked at what [Aquinas] said, and looked at what Aristotle said, and decided that Aquinas did in fact write profound truths about human and divine matters.”

    And here I thought we was a’ talkin’ ’bout nude beaches.

    By golly darn it.

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