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The courteous and competent real-estate agent I'd just hired to rent my house shocked and offended me when, after we signed our contract, he refused to shake my hand, saying that as an Orthodox Jew he did not touch women. As a feminist, I oppose sex discrimination of all sorts. However, I also support freedom of religious expression. How do I balance these conflicting values? Should I tear up our contract?
J.L., New York
This culture clash may not allow you to reconcile the values you esteem. Though the agent dealt you only a petty slight, without ill intent, you're entitled to work with someone who will treat you with the dignity and respect he shows his male clients. If this involved only his own person -- adherence to laws concerning diet or dress, for example -- you should of course be tolerant. But his actions directly affect you. And sexism is sexism, even when motivated by religious convictions. I believe you should tear up your contract....
... Some religions that assign men and women distinct spheres argue that while those two spheres are different, neither is inferior to the other. This sort of reasoning was rejected in 1954 in the great school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court declared that separate is by its very nature unequal. That's a pretty good ethical guideline for ordinary life.
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