Delta Airlines Won’t Ask for Passengers’ Religious Affiliation

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

A Delta Airlines jet takes off from Washington's Reagan National Airport on August 4, 2011.

Delta issued a statement indicating that it will not comply with a discriminatory policy that its new partner, Saudi Arabian Airlines, follows.

After Delta announced its new affiliation with the Saudi airline in June, Jewish organizations, including Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, cried foul, saying that the new alliance would mean that Delta would have to bar Jews from traveling to Saudi Arabia — in compliance with the Middle Eastern country’s protocol.

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At first, Delta’s response was to stress that it does not discriminate against its passengers in any way, adding that “it’s important to realize that visa requirements to enter any country are dictated by that nation’s government, not the airlines, and they apply to anyone entering the country regardless of whether it’s by plane, bus or train.” In other words — or at least it seemed by reading between the lines — Delta was not prepared to go against its new partner by refusing to ask passengers about their religious backgrounds.

Delta’s ambiguous statement led Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to compose a critical open letter to Delta CEO Richard Anderson trying to explain how the Saudi policy is discriminatory by comparing it to hypothetical situations that would clearly be seen as unacceptable:

What would happen if a leading U.S. carrier voluntarily allows itself to be hijacked by bigots in order to open a new market? For example, what if it entered into an agreement with a foreign airline that would see to it that no blacks or Catholics or gays boarded code-shared flights destined to reach the partner’s home nation?

I think you know the answer.

Yet, that is what Delta Airlines appears to have done when your company announced plans to add Saudi Arabian Airlines to your SkyTeam Alliance. You see, under their rules, they require that Delta ban Jews and holders of Israeli passports from boarding flights from New York or Washington bound for Jeddah.

Following a meeting of Delta executives last week, senior vice president Andrea Fischer Newman replied to Cooper saying, “Delta employees do not currently, and will not in the future, request that customers disclose their religious affiliation. We would also not seek such information on behalf of any SkyTeam partner or any airline.”

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Frances Romero is a writer-reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @frances_romero or on Tumblr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.