How Far Should We Go to Accommodate Religious Requests?

07/30/2015 01:27 EDT | Updated 07/30/2016 05:59 EDT
Ultra-orthodox Jews, members of the Satmar Hasidic Community from New York, pray at the grave of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the founder of the community, in the old Jewish cemetery of Satoraljaujhely, 256 kms northeast of Budapest, Hungary, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. The grave of Moyse Teitelbaum is a frequently visited Jewish pilgrimage site. (Janos Vajda/MTI via AP)

Last week, a woman travelling on a Porter flight from New York to Toronto was asked to move to another seat to accommodate an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man, possibly because his faith prevented him from sitting next to women, but we don't know for sure. She refused to move. Someone else agreed to change seats, and he was eventually seated on the flight beside a man.

The woman was very upset. She said that the man never looked at her nor spoke to her. She argued that her right to be treated with dignity was infringed when the flight attendant asked her to move. The religious man clearly believed that his needs should have trumped hers. And the airline says it has no policy on this kind of situation because it happens so rarely.

It may be rare for Porter Airlines, but our public schools, like our airplanes, trains, busses, theatres and other public venues are facing a an increase in such requests. Society is growing in diversity and people know they have rights. This is a great leap forward. People are asking for accommodations for themselves and for others who have traditionally been swept to the sidelines.

But what happens when these rights and accommodations compete with one another? How can we fairly decide which demands are reasonable and which go too far?

For example, imagine a classroom with an equal number of boys and girls. One family approaches the teacher and asks that their son be seated only with other boys as it is religiously improper for him to sit near girls who are not members of his family. Another family asks the teacher to seat their daughter only with other girls for the same reason. Do we think it is reasonable to accommodate these requests in the spirit of religious accommodation in a public institution? It is not too difficult to switch around a few desks. But, what if ten families ask for this? Do we divide the class so that there is a boys' side and a girls' side? Do we have a boys' class and a girls' class? Should we have publicly-funded boys' schools and girls' schools? There are indications that some children learn better when separated by sex -- and other indications that they don't.

Some say that the first request is the thin edge of the wedge and that we should turn down all such requests because we will end up with segregated public institutions -- again. They say that if the requests were made on the basis of race or sexual orientation, it would be clear that there should NEVER be an accommodation for such requests.

But now imagine the same class with boys and girls evenly spaced. This time a family comes to the teacher with the information that their daughter is terrified of boys. She is a survivor of a sexual assault and can only feel comfortable to learn if she is seated with other girls. I think most of us would accommodate this family's request. But what is the difference?

Are we more sensitive to people's individual needs and vulnerabilities than we are to their religious views? For many people, their religious views and values are the very essence of their dignity -- the most important elements of their lives. But, we all need to be treated fairly and with respect.

Is there any way to resolve this standoff, without keeping the plane on the tarmac for hours? Could we be fair to both airline passengers?

The woman who refused to change her seat was affronted by the fact that the man making the request did not speak to her or make eye contact. She said that if she had been addressed directly and politely asked to move, if his reasons had been explained to her, she might have reacted differently.

This is not to say that she SHOULD have agreed to move. It is however, an indication that the growing diversity of our society may require us to teach one another about our views, values and beliefs.

In the 1960s, during the fight for racial equality in the U.S. there was a saying, "If you have never talked about racism with someone of another race, you are part of the problem." There will never be an easy or perfect solution -- but at least we can open the conversation. Find someone very different from yourself and talk with him or her about those differences. Who knows? You could be part of the solution.


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