Hasidic Stores Charged with Discrimination

Seven Hasidic stores on Lee Avenue in Williamsburg have been charged with discrimination for signs requesting customers dress in modest clothing. (Photo by Paul McGeiver, Flickr Creative Commons License)

The New York City Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) has filed charges against seven Satmar chasidic Jewish store owners in Brooklyn, alleging that they have stepped over the line in their requests for modest wear, reports The Jewish Week‘s Jonathan Mark.

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.”

For the stores’ high profile and pro bono legal team of Devora Allon and Jay Lefkowitz – provided with help from the Jewish Community Relations Council – the case has become a matter of free speech and religious rights, according to Mark.

Cliff Mulqueen, the deputy commissioner and general counsel for the CCHR justified the charges, saying the signs posted by the stores makes customers feel “unwelcome.”

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.”

But Eric Rassbach, the deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, a non-profit that promotes religious expression, sees it differently: “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.”

He continued:

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.

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