New York City residents have lots to worry about. The citys outstanding debt exceeds $100 billion. The interest alone exceeds $6 billion annually. The citys tax base continues to shrink as businesses, fed up with New Yorks high rates, flee to lower-tax jurisdictions . The citys infrastructure desperately needs an upgrade. And Hasidic shopkeepers in Brooklyn are engaged in a blatant campaign to violate customers human rights.
At least thats what the citys human rights commission argues. The commission is suing Hasidic shopkeepers who have hung signs in their windows stating, No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low cut neckline allowed in this store. The commission argues that this dress code discriminates against women in violation of the citys public accommodations law. According to the deputy commissioner, the signs are pretty specific to women, and requiring women to dress modestly if they come into the store is illegal.
Now, generally speaking, anti-discrimination laws allow public accommodations to have dress codes, as long as the codes dont discriminate against protected classes. On its face, its not clear how this dress code is discriminatory. It treats men and women the same. Lets say a barefoot woman wearing shorts walks into a store. She may be asked to leave. Lets say a barefoot man in shorts tries to do the same thing. He also may be asked to leave. Wheres the discrimination? Now, its true that the stores might apply a facially neutral dress code in a discriminatory way. So, for example, if the shopkeepers in practice excluded only women, that would be a problem. According to the stores lawyer, though, theres no evidence that the stores have ever excluded any womanor man, for that matter for any reason.
In short, its not clear where the illegality lies. But theres a deeper point. New York is a cosmopolitan city in which people with very different lifestyles must find some way to get along. Mostly, New Yorkers do that by tolerating things that offend us. That works fine, most of the time. Maybe these religious storeowners should simply put up with dress they find immodest in the interests of a more expressive society. But is it really too much to ask someone to abide by this fairly innocuous dress code before going into a store, if thats what the store owner wants? Is the injustice really so great that the store owner must be hauled into court and taught a lesson? Arent there more important problems for the city to tackle?
Sugary soft drinks , for instance.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.