Get On Your Side of the Room, Ladies

As ultra-orthodox religious leaders increasingly insist that women be segregated from men during public events, universities have begun allowing women to be forced to one side of the room. Now the practice is nationally sanctioned, glorified as a better alternative than forcing women to the back of the room.

“Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system,” a national organization of administrators stated recently in condoning forced gender segregation at university-sanctioned events.

If it had been orthodox Christians in America making these segregation demands, you certainly would have heard by now. MSNBC might even provide 24-hour coverage of ensuing protests.

The demands, however, originate with Islamic scholars and clerics in the United Kingdom and other Western European nations. Universities UK, a national association of vice chancellors in the United Kingdom, issued the guidance above, stating that free speech rights and religious respect are more important than concerns about gender segregation.

Universities UK at least acknowledges the rights of students and faculty to publicly object to forced gender segregation or, more aptly, gender apartheid given the ultimate goal of some segregation promoters.

“Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief,” the association states in its guidance document on “External speakers in higher education institutions.”

What happens when white or black nationalists, espousing theories supported by a church, demand that their on-campus events be racially segregated?

What happens when hard-core Islamists demand segregation not just by gender, but further demand that Muslims be separated from Jews, Christians and especially anyone who doesn’t follow an Abrahamic faith?

There is a conflict growing between some elements of Islam and western democracies. Western Europe is giving America a preview of the debates heading across the Atlantic.

Forced public segregation is never an acceptable answer. America is already challenged with voluntary re-segregation – by race, political party, language, religion and other factors. If we head down the path argued by Universities UK of saying that publicly forced segregation is acceptable as long as it derives from “genuinely-held religious belief,” where do we stop?

Muslims have the right to practice forced segregation inside their mosques, just as Catholics have the right to not allow female priests. No one, though, has the right to impose forced gender segregation at events supported by public resources, just as no one has the right to impose racial segregation at such events.

In trying so hard to appease all sides of an issue, Universities UK missed that some principles require unwavering support.

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