Religious Dress Codes Vs. Human Rights?

Non-chasidic support for Satmar in modesty fight against city.

04/17/13
Associate Editor
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For years, the modest dress of Satmar chasidim, and their request that visitors dress in kind, was seen by some non-Jews as Amish-like charming, by some liberal Jews as annoying or religious bullying, and within their own Satmar world as a gentle way to bring holiness to something as ordinary as the length of a sleeve or socks.

What chasidic modesty has never been called in the United States is illegal, a violation of human rights. But New York City is now saying exactly that, filing charges against seven chasidic store owners in Brooklyn for modesty requests that have allegedly gone too far. Any chasid who doesn’t want to pay fines of several thousand dollars can tell it to a judge in June.

Despite no one claiming they were denied service, the city’s Commission on Human Rights has served papers alleging illegal discrimination by seven chasidic shopkeepers on Lee Avenue, the main Satmar strip in Williamsburg, for posting, or allowing to be posted, signs near the doorway informing customers: “No shorts; no barefoot; no sleeveless; no low cut necklines; thank you.”

Satmar chasidim are sometimes seen as “the Jews” of the Jews, a people that dwells alone, but they are hardly alone as their court date approaches. The case has become a First Amendment battleground, and the Lee Avenue Seven are being supported with legal advice from the Jewish Community Relations Council and the American Jewish Committee. The JCRC approached Jay Lefkowitz to take the case and he immediately agreed. Lefkowitz is on the management committee of the Kirkland & Ellis law firm, which accepted the case pro bono. Lefkowiz brought in one of their leading associates, Devora Allon. Lefkowitz, who worked in President George W. Bush’s administration in various domestic policy posts, has had prior experience in human rights cases, some far from Brooklyn, having been the American envoy on human rights to North Korea.

“From Kirkland’s perspective,” said Allon, “this case has important implications for religious rights and freedom of speech. There are worthwhile issues to litigate here.”

Additionally, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Washington, D.C. firm specializing in First Amendment religious issues, the largest such firm in the country, is monitoring the case and told The Jewish Week that “it wouldn’t be out of the question” for Becket to offer assistance “if the case proceeds. We often get involved at the appellate stage.”

Cliff Mulqueen, deputy commissioner and general counsel for the Commission on Human Rights, explained the city’s case: The seven stores — a printer, two grocers, a bakery, a luggage store, a hardware store and a clothing store — “posted a sign that basically indicated that customers had to obey the Jewish laws of modesty.”

How different is that from fancy restaurants that have a dress code? “Dress codes are OK,” said Mulqueen. “Telling someone to wear a jacket is saying we want a certain kind of clientele here; we want to project a certain image. It has nothing to do with a protected class. Whereas telling someone they have to abide by certain rules of the Jewish faith crosses the line into [establishing] a protected class. You can’t post a sign that makes someone’s patronage appear unwelcome. That’s what the law says.”

In fact, the swank Union League Club in Manhattan posts its own modesty signs: “Traditional business attire, jacket and tie for gentlemen and equally formal attire for ladies,” is required on most days. “Denim, sneakers, athletic apparel of any description, or immodest attire are never permitted,” or service would be denied.

The Becket Fund’s deputy general counsel, Eric Rassbach, said by telephone, “How is it discrimination and a human rights violation when the request is made by a poor chasidic Jew but perfectly fine if posted in an upscale establishment? You may disagree with what an owner of a restaurant or business wants you to do, but disagreement is not discrimination.”

Has anyone been denied service by these chasidim? “That’s not relevant,” said Mulqueen. “That would be a separate cause of action, of discrimination, if they actually turned people away.”

The Lee Avenue case rests more on discrimination based on “creed” than on gender. “It is arguable,” said Mulqueen, “whether these [modesty signs] apply to women, or to both men and women.”

If anyone was being discriminated against, said Rassbach of the Becket Fund, it was the chasidim, and it was City Hall that was doing the discriminating.

Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Committee, agreed: “We know of no evidence of discrimination by any of the store owners,” said Stern. On the other hand, “there’s lots of evidence of discrimination by the City Commission on Human Rights, which seems to stereotype chasidim.”
 

Last Update:

10/25/2013 - 08:52

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I have often gone into stores barefoot. Contrary to popular view it is not illegal to do so in most places nor is it against the health laws. Around here, most places don't care that I do it. However, I support their right to kick me out if they choose to do so.

If I were wearing shorts, short sleeves, and read the sign in the store front, I wouldn't feel offended. I'd be curious, but not offended. In fact, I think that a modestly dressed women is more impressive to society. It's almost as if she knows that there's a responsibility to be aware of her surroundings and respectfull of her stature. I would respect the shop owners as I would respect any business' requests. "No Chewing Gum" comes to mind. "Use Other Door". "Hold Down Handle When You Flush" is another.

Halacha and its counterpart, sharia, should not be allowed in a gentile, mostly Christian nation. If you want to live under this kind of oppressive middle eastern religious rule, you are free to move to Iran or Israel. This is why those nations exist; so people don't have to be allowed the freedom to choose their own dress. This is the USA. Unless you want storeowners to be allowed to post "no shoes, no shirt, no service, and no yarmulkes as they offend our religious sensibilities", don't do it to us.

The NY case has a number of Achilles Heels. The most obvious one is that if secular store owners posted signs that said "“No shorts; no barefoot; no sleeveless; no low cut necklines; thank you” in their windows you would assume they based their request on general social norms concerning proper dress.

The only reason that the State connects the statement “No shorts; no barefoot; no sleeveless; no low cut necklines; thank you” with "the Jewish laws of modesty" is because the people posting the signs are Jewish.

Therefore it is indeed the State that is discriminating.

I hope that the shopkeepers or the lawyers set up an online petition that would facilitate New York residents expressing their outrage over this abuse of authority.

Hmmm, a guy named Cliff Mulqueen has no problem with a WASPy club having a dress code, but does have a problem with Jewish stores having one. In this 2013 or 1950?

Sounds like a young lawyer trying to slingshot his career with a sensational victory, but boy did he pick the wrong case.

No shoes, no shirt, no service. This isn't new.

This brings to mind what a friend in the Lakewood area tells me -- that, without the signs, people 'not dressed modestly enough' are ignored by salespeople in certain establishments there. I wonder if this has happened in these stores as well.

Well, all I can say is that you have to visit KJ and see there new playground. one for fathers and sons, one for mothers and daughters and one for boys seperate from girls....NON-JEWS not allowed NON-Haredi JEWS not allowed. This is not stereotyping them but it is truly adverse to all our thinking as regular Jews. This is a shonda! I hope they find out that they used Federal or State money for this and they have to allow everyone in the playground.

Kudos to the JCRC and for once the AJC got it right

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