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Those Williamsburg ‘Modesty’ Signs

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Last year, the New York City Commission on Human Rights decided to pursue a discrimination claim against a half dozen chassidic store owners in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section over their posting of signs that stated, “No Shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut neckline allowed in this store.”

The complaint raised eyebrows, not least because it cited a provision of the city’s human rights law that prohibits a store from “directly or indirectly denying service based upon a person’s actual or perceived race, creed, color, national origin, age, gender, disability, marital status, partnership status, sexual orientation or alienage or citizenship status….”

Nowhere in that law is anything mentioned concerning the state of a patron’s dress or undress.

Courts have been known to do violence to the plain language of a law, but it is hard to understand how the across the board prohibition – which can easily be complied with – fits any of the proscribed categories. Indeed, the complaint simply states, “Complainant [in this instance the Commission seemed to have filed its own complaint] charges that Respondents [i.e., the storeowners] posted a written communication that expressly intended to deny patrons the advantages, facilities, and/or privileges of a public accommodation based upon their gender and creed, in violation of ….[the human rights law].”

To be sure, the deputy commissioner and general counsel of the agency said the signs represented “A public accommodation trying to impose its religious beliefs on other people,” and that the signs made “one protected group of individuals [women] uncomfortable.”

Yet how are the signs any different from the dress codes for patrons and employees in restaurants, or, indeed, courthouses – all of which have been ignored by the commission. More to the point, does anyone seriously entertain the thought that the shopkeepers were really trying to exclude or in any way hinder women or non-Orthodox Jews from patronizing their stores?

When a commission administrative law judge recently refused to drop the charges and ordered the matter to trial in January, editorial writers and other commentators were aghast, repeating the earlier criticisms.

Even a brief reading of the complaint and the later decision ordering the case to trial shows that the process has many flaws and the logic is severely wanting. But we think it is more important to focus on the deafening silence of Mayor Bloomberg in this disgraceful affair. This is a mayor who absolutely refused to consider any criticism of his “stop and frisk” policy. We stood with him on that issue because of its obvious utility, but can anyone really maintain that it is not plainly discriminatory against Hispanics and African-Americans?

By what standard does he then not denounce a city agency’s verbal gymnastics as it endeavors to find something discriminatory in the chassidic merchants’ signs, when the very same thing is practiced all over town without challenge?

We believe the commission’s agenda is not to address real discrimination but rather to seize any opportunity to make a point: if someone may arguably have a religious motive for doing something others do from non-religious motives, the person motivated by religious belief should be singled out in order to ensure that one’s religion will never be imposed on another.

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