By Michelle Boorstein
An interesting discussion is brewing around George Washington University’s decision earlier this month to set aside one hour each week for women-only swimming at the campus recreation center. The decision was made to accommodate some Muslim students who say their faith requires they maintain a certain level of modesty.
Any new efforts around the country to accommodate Muslims are getting more attention in recent months amid what appears to be a new wave of anxiety about Islam in America. A small but very vocal group of critics has been arguing that American liberties are endangered by decisions like the one at GWU, and a similar decision about pool hours a Harvard and foot baths at the University of Michigan.
Discussion on a local listserv shows a range of views, including people who see GWU’s decision as a setback for women and others who see it as a welcome counter to our sometimes hyper-sexualized culture.
I spoke briefly about the issue to Ira Lupu, a law professor at GW who focuses on church-state issues. I asked him if Muslim women could argue religious discrimination if they couldn’t use the pool because of men, or if male students could argue they were losing out? He seemed to think the latter camp had a better argument due to Title IX’s ban on sexual discrimination in educational programs that get federal money.
“If I was in the [university's] office of general counsel, I’d say make it the same for men as women,” said Lupu.
The focus on what some critics call “creeping sharia” (the term implies a subtle encroachment of orthodox Islam onto American freedoms) comes at an interesting time. Conservative religious groups – mostly evangelicals, but also Jews and Catholics – have just spent the past few decades pouring money into legal cases establishing access for religious groups to public spaces; cases have focused on everything from Bible groups’ right to advertise and meet on public school property after-hours to religious holiday displays on public land.
“When you push for equal access, it really means that. Not just for your own folks,” Lupu said. “So here we go.”