COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – When Sabah Ali took her family to the Commerce City Recreation Center to swim Sunday afternoon, her clothing conformed to her religious beliefs, but not pool rules.
“Why do I have to be half naked to swim? To enjoy my time with my kids?“ Ali asked, sobbing. “I want to have the same rights as every citizen.”
Ali was wearing what she called an “Islamic dress” with a shirt and pants underneath.
But rec center employees pointed to pool rules stating “specified swimming attire only.”
“I told them I would take off the long dress, if that was their concern, and that I had clothes on underneath,” said Ali. “But they said if they let me, everyone would ask, ‘Why did you let them and not us?'”
Michelle Halsted, a Commerce City spokeswoman, said the rules not allowing street clothes are best practices for public health and safety, and they include options ranging from rash guards to full body swimsuits.
Halsted said the rules are not discriminatory, but are equally enforced.
“The city routinely turns away people who don’t have appropriate swimwear — jean shorts, sport shorts, not wearing swim diapers,” said Halsted. “We turn all those individuals away because the No. 1 focus for us is safety.”
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Halsted said wearing street clothes in the pool can increase the likelihood of contamination and waterborne illness.
But Ali said she has worn the same clothes in public pools before with no problems, and civil rights attorney Quasair Mohamedbhai said public places must take pains not to discriminate based on religious beliefs.
“These policies should be reevaluated to ensure that Muslims are included and have full access to the Commerce City Rec Center,” said Mohamedbhai.
Ali eventually rented a hotel room so her family could go swimming together in the pool, and she wanted to tell her story to start a dialogue and prevent this from happening to someone else.
Halsted said the city is going to update its swimwear brochure to include full body swimsuits and burkinis.
“We will also be talking to other aquatic centers about what they do to find a balance between religious exceptions and public safety,” said Halsted.