Thursday, March 6, 2008

Yglesias versus on Religious Accomodation

Many in the blogoshere are outraged that my old Alma Mater, Harvard is accommodating female Muslim students by banning men at a gym during certain hours. Andrew Sullivan is outraged:

They would never do that kind of thing for any other religion. If a religion refuses to allow men and women to work out together in public, then its adherents need to work out at home. What's next? Removing all gay men from the locker-room? This is the West, guys. Get over yourselves.

Read it all here.

Matthew Ygesias, I think, has the better response:

Suppose I were to inform Andrew that Harvard, like all American institutions of higher education of which I'm aware, shuts down and creates a holiday in late December that just so happens to coincide with an important familial and religious observance for Christians whereas no such allowance is made for Passover visits. Christianism? Worse, it happens in public high schools and elementary schools all across the country, the very same country in which no mail can be delivered on Sunday! Meanwhile, when I was a student at Harvard there was a ban on having anything on fire in a dorm room and also a movement to create an exemption so that Jewish students could light Hanukkah candles. I don't recall whether or not the exemption was granted, but if it was that certainly wouldn't constitute the dawning of a new era of Jewish theocratic rule at the university. I know for a fact that they allow students to reschedule exams for religious reasons, like a Jewish or Muslim obligation to avoid taking an exam on a Saturday (no exams are scheduled on Sundays).

There's a range of things one can think about these policies. The preferential treatment granted by public institutions to Christmas rankles, but given the vast number of Christmas-celebrators in the country it's also inevitable and practical. The "no mail on Sundays" thing is poor public policy and obviously has religious origins of a sort, but it's hardly some intolerable burden on minorities, it's just bad public policy. Letting people reschedule exams for religious reasons, but not just because they happen to feel like taking them in some other order, seems like an eminently fair and practical way of dealing with the situation. New York City public schools make the Jewish High Holy Days a day off, due to the city's large Jewish population, most other jurisdictions don't do that but will look the other way if Jewish kids don't show up -- reasonable responses to the objective situation in both cases.

Finding a way to accommodate observant Muslims' concerns about co-ed workouts, in short, is hardly some per se outrageous violation of a strict U.S. tradition of secularism. Is the particular way they've done this unduly burdensome? I think to say whether or not it is you'd need to look at the situation and the available alternatives in some detail.

Read it here.

As Matthew points out, there may still be reason to think that the accommodation here goes too far (think of those poor Harvard boys without a gym for a few hours--the horror). Nonetheless, I think that he is correct that accommodation of our religious diversity is quite consistent with our best American traditions. I find it ironic that many of those outraged (Sullivan is decidedly not in this category) are also the most adamant in insisting that secularists celebrate Christmas.

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