NEW YORK --A New York City municipal pool that maintains female-only hours so that Hasidic Jewish women can swim with no men present has raised alarms among critics who say the accommodation to a particular religious group violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
But defenders say the women-only swim sessions at the Metropolitan Recreation Center give women whose community separates the sexes a rare chance to exercise.
"Why deprive them?" said New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat who represents a heavily Orthodox Jewish district in Brooklyn. "Really, you're not taking away from anyone else."
The rec center in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood has apparently kept women-only pool hours since the 1990s, but the practice only came to the attention of the wider public when someone complained about it to the city's Commission on Human Rights.
Commission spokesman Seth Hoy said it received an anonymous tip "a few months back" that the indoor pool might be violating the city's human rights law, which bans sex discrimination in public accommodations.
Hoy said the commission reached out to the city Department of Parks and Recreation to discuss its pool policies.
According to Hikind, swimming pool staffers then started telling the Hasidic women that the female-only hours would be discontinued on June 11.
"A number of women called my office very distraught," Hikind said.
A new pool schedule without women's hours was posted, but the change was reversed after Hikind and others complained.
The city Parks Department said in a statement that it is reviewing its policy but the women-only sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and Sunday afternoons will remain for now.
The Brooklyn pool's women-only hours are unusual but not unique.
Seattle offers women-only swimming at several municipal pools, and the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park promises "No males allowed!" at its all-female swim.
Such swim sessions originally were offered "to serve our Jewish population," said Jacqueline Larson, spokeswoman for St. Louis Park. "However, as the city's Muslim population has grown, we have reached out to them to participate as well."
But civil libertarians say restricting men's access to a public pool is wrong.
"New Yorkers ... have every right to limit their swimming in accordance with their religious beliefs, but they have no right to impose a regime of gender discrimination on a public pool," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The controversy could be awkward for Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who relies on support from New York's growing ultra-Orthodox community.
De Blasio, who also has championed transgender rights, was asked last week whether "anybody who identifies as female" would be welcome during women-only pool hours. He declined to answer directly, saying only that the city is reviewing that issue.
At a recent all-female session at the Metropolitan pool, about 30 women swam and waded in the water. Several said they were thankful the hours were available to help them follow the practices of their religion, which bar men and women from swimming together, in part because swimsuits are inherently immodest. They protested loudly when a journalist sought to take a photo.
"It's good for our body and it's good for our mind. And we know where to go and we have a little exercise," said Paula Weiss, who gave her age as over 80. "We can't go everywhere."
Doug Safranek, who is not an Orthodox Jew, had to leave the pool at the start of women's session. He said he wouldn't want the all-female swimming hours canceled even though it inconveniences him.
"I'm happy that these women have a place to swim, but strictly speaking it isn't fair," Safranek said. "It's an extreme religious group that had a standard of modesty and decorum the rest of the culture doesn't share. I don't want to change my attire to accommodate them."