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Originally published December 3, 2013 at 4:07 PM | Page modified December 3, 2013 at 5:42 PM

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Diving into religious practice

Seattle Times columnist Bruce Ramsey argues in favor of the women-only swim at a public pool.


Times editorial columnist

Bruce Ramsey is retiring

This is his final column for The Seattle Times. He is retiring Friday after more than 37 years in journalism, the last 13 as a Times editorial writer and columnist. To read Bruce’s favorite 10 columns, go to seati.ms/ramseyfavs

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A splash of objections, most of them all wet, was occasioned by reporter Lornet Turnbull’s story last week about a public swimming pool having a women-only swim.

I refer to the public comments written on The Times website, most of them anonymous. Why American newspapers allow such comments, I don’t know; many are by people who obviously haven’t read the stories. In this case they saw the photo of two Muslim women and denounced the women-only swim as a favor to one religion, which it was only partly. The Times’ story clearly said the Tukwila Pool’s 90-minute swim on Sundays is for all women.

In the story, women offered two reasons for wanting this. One said she had an unattractive body and felt more comfortable in a swimsuit if there were no men around. Another, a Muslim, said the mixing of men and women in a state of semi-nudity is forbidden by “a commandment from God.”

No one objected to the first reason. But our progressives, who really aren’t liberal about a lot of things, went italic over the words, “commandment from God.” “The government should not cater to any religious practice,” declared one. Wrote another, “Religion should never dictate policies ... or we’re all doomed.”

Religion should never dictate. Grant that. But people were saying something more. They wanted public officials to listen to all sorts of reasons except religious ones. The progressive state can promote ethnic pride, social justice, sustainability and even patriotism, but about religion, officials are instructed to shut their ears.

That is not what the Constitution says. It proclaims religious freedom. It says government cannot establish a religion, but it leaves authorities free to accommodate people of various beliefs. An example is the U.S. Postal Service. It issues Christian, Jewish and Muslim holiday stamps.

Should government not “cater to any religious practice?” Give up Christmas as a public holiday, then.

Another bad argument against the women-only swim is that it’s segregation, like the Jim Crow separation of “white” and “colored” restrooms in the old South. Proclaims one over-user of the uppercase, “Substitute the word WHITE for MEN, BLACK for WOMEN ...”

No. Don’t do that. The civil-rights struggle came out of a specific history, and it is a mistake to apply its principles unthinkingly to issues that are different. An obvious example is restrooms, which are segregated by gender everywhere in the world. Both genders want them “separate but equal,” and that is the right principle.

Having a women-only time at a pool is segregation by a group that asks to be segregated. Whether to agree to this should be up to the people running the pool, based on the demand for it and what the reasons are.

Predictably, some of the comments on the news story were fulminations against Islam, labeling it a “medieval religion,” “a 13th century ideology,” etc. Here our long-suffering conservatives forget that their side includes the followers of a religion 2,000 years old. Conservative Christians want government to accommodate them because it traditionally has, and because they are part of American culture. Fine. But if they want such things as a Christmas tree at the airport or a crèche at the state capitol, they need to look for allies where allies may be found, and maybe also exercise some Christian generosity at Christmastime.

Dear conservatives: These Muslim women are like you. They are religious people. You should be defending them, and not relying on an irreligious fellow like me.

Anyway, I’m retiring. This is my 342nd column as a member of The Times editorial board, and my last. Adiós.

Bruce Ramsey's email address is bramsey@seattletimes.com




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