Segregated public buses may seem like a anachronism that went out with Rosa Parks, but women are still required to sit at the back on one New York City bus line. The New York World reports that while the B110 in Brooklyn is open to the public, a council of Orthodox Jewish leaders has control over its policies because the route serves a Jewish community in the city.
And the rabbis on the bus’ consulting council have decreed that male passengers should ride in the front of the bus and female passengers in the back:
The B110 bus travels between Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn. It is open to the public, and has a route number and tall blue bus stop signs like any other city bus. But the B110 operates according to its own distinct rules. The bus line is run by a private company and serves the Hasidic communities of the two neighborhoods. To avoid physical contact between members of opposite sexes that is prohibited by Hasidic tradition, men sit in the front of the bus and women sit in the back.
The arrangement that the B110 operates under can only be described as unorthodox. It operates as a franchise, in which a private company, Private Transportation Corporation, pays the city for the right to provide a public service.[…]
City, state and federal law all proscribe discrimination based on gender in public accommodations.[…] The Department of Transportation, which issues the franchise, confirms that it understands the B110 to be subject to anti-discrimination laws. “This is a private company, but it is a public service,” said Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the DOT. “The company has to comply with all applicable laws.”
The rule is no mere formality. Women who ride the bus, even those who are not Jewish, report that they are ordered by male passengers to move to the back, and scolded when they ask questions.
The DOT spokesman said the agency would contact the bus company about these incidents, “with the expectation that it will take steps to prevent the occurrence of incidents of this nature.” However, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which prosecutes violations of anti-discrimination law, said it would not investigate unless someone filed a complaint. But a spokeswoman for the commission indicated that they too understood the bus line to be a public accommodation subject to anti-discrimination laws, even if it is run by a private company.
The city’s peculiar arrangement with a group of orthodox religious leaders often criticized for their exclusionary treatment of women seems to blur the constitutional line between church and state beyond distinction. Hasidics’ segregationist policies are not representative of the Jewish community as a whole — in fact, many Jews reject their practices because they prohibit women from participating in the most meaningful parts of religious life, including prayer and public reading of the Torah.
Ross Sandler, a professor at New York Law School, says anti-discrimination laws apply to buses that are franchises but “the question is whether there is an exception for this particular bus line.” The Transportation Department said that the B110 had not been granted any exceptions to anti-discrimination laws.