This article was originally published in First Things.
Women’s-only hours at swimming pools are nothing new. Many secular institutions have long hosted separate swim hours for women and girls who, for reasons of faith or personal preference, desire to swim without the presence of men. The list includes Barnard College, Harvard University, Yale University, and swim clubs, JCCs, and YMCAs across the country. Recently, women’s-only swimming hours have become a topic of debate, especially in New York, where promoters of liberal secularist ideology (including the editorial page of the New York Times) are campaigning against women’s-only hours at a public swimming pool on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. They claim that women’s-only swimming hours, even for a small portion of the day, must be abolished in the interest of “general fairness and equal access” and to avoid “discrimination” in favor of certain religions.
This is doubly wrong. First, accommodation is not the same as discrimination. Second, critics emphasize the importance of upholding “public, secular rules” without recognizing that an honorable, fair, and therefore desirable secularity is not one that imposes secularism as an ideology; rather it is one that accommodates on terms of equality the needs of members of the various communities, including faith communities, composing society as a whole.
As two religious women who attend secular universities and work in secular environments, we speak about secularity and diversity from our mutual experience. On Princeton’s campus, where we met as college students in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and as leaders of the Religious Life Interfaith Council, we stood out among our peers both visibly (by the way we dress) and through practice.