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Brooklyn Pool's Women-only Hours Generate Controversy

The doors are open at the Metropolitan Pool in the Williamsburg neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Monday, June 6, 2016.

A New York City public pool is keeping its popular women-only swimming hours despite an anonymous complaint that gender segregation conflicts with law governing the separation of church and state.

The Metropolitan Recreation Center in Brooklyn, New York last week eliminated its four-times-a-week "women's swim" hours in response to the complaint, but after public outcry, the women's swim time was quickly reinstated.

The pool, located in a neighborhood that is heavily Jewish Orthodox, has reserved a few hours a week for women-only swimming since the 1990s. The segregated hours allow recreation time in the water for women whose beliefs prohibit them from swimming in mixed company.

The Brooklyn pool is the latest example of the clash between allowing people freedom to practice their religion and protecting others from being restricted by that practice. Nearly one-quarter of Brooklyn residents are Jewish, although not all are Orthodox.

The anonymous complaint lodged with New York City's Commission on Human Rights said the women-only hours violate the law on public accommodations that says people cannot be excluded from a public facility on the basis of their gender.

"The best solution," wrote the New York Times in an editorial last week, "would be for the city to immediately end religious segregation in the pools, and limit the rules of separation only to practical considerations, like keeping lap swimmers away from splashing children. Let those who cannot abide public, secular rules at a public secular pool, find their own private place to swim."

Benefits of women-only swims

But supporters of segregated swim times say the benefits of segregated swim times are important, especially to women in conservative religious groups and others who feel vulnerable disrobing in public.

In Sweden, the city of Malmo has increased public participation at its swimming pools by adding women-only hours, which helps accommodate the city's growing Muslim population. Sweden's feminist political party has a sexual policy spokeswoman, Toktam Jahangiry, who told the Christian Science Monitor that women may prefer gender-segregated swimming for more reasons than just religion.

Jahangiry noted that women are self-conscious about their bodies, perhaps because of a mastectomy, anxiety about weight, or even bruises from violence. She said those women are often more comfortable in a women-only setting, and those who need to reach out for help may be more likely to do so.

The New York Times earlier this year reported on a pool in Toronto, Canada, where Somali women and girls gather for women-only time on Saturday evenings. Many say it is the only time they would be able to swim because their religion doesn't allow them to be seen by men while they are "uncovered."

That particular pool, which covers its glass walls with screens while the women swim, leaves them up for a private session afterward that is often attended by transgender people.

A pool in Seattle, Washington, has tried to stay away from legal complaints by following its 90 minutes of women-only swimming on Sunday afternoons with 90 minutes for men. The men-only swim time suffers from low attendance.

Back in Brooklyn, public outcry saved the women's hours at Metropolitan Recreation Center. They are still on the summer swim calendar and expected to continue for the near future. But the ethical problem has not gone away. While few residents have spoken out strongly against the segregated hours, the New York Times notes that the case in Brooklyn has what it calls a "strong odor of religious intrusion into a secular space" -- and the way forward remains unclear.