New York - Does a requirement that customers at Satmar-run stores in Brooklyn dress modestly run afoul of human rights law? That is the question at issue in the upcoming trial of seven businesses being sued by New York City's Commission on Human Rights for having signs in their storefronts stating, "No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low cut neckline allowed in this store."
The businesses are all located along a two-block stretch of Lee Avenue, Williamsburg's main Hasidic shopping street, which bustles with cars and pedestrian shoppers during the week but on Shabbos becomes silent but for the men wearing prayer shawls hurrying to synagogue along the sidewalks.
"These stores are public accommodations, and they are prohibited from posting any kind of advertisement specifying a preference for one type of customer or another, or expressing discrimination against one type or another," said Clifford Mulqueen, deputy commissioner and general counsel to the human rights commission.
Public accommodation is a legal term meaning entities like stores, public or private, that are used by the public.
The signs are "pretty specific to women," Mulqueen said. "It seems pretty clear that it's geared toward women dressing modestly if they choose to come into the store, and that would be discrimination."
The virtually identical modesty signs began appearing in Williamsburg store windows in 2011 and 2012, and the human rights commission filed the lawsuits in August 2012. There is a pre-trial meeting at court scheduled on March 12th, Mulqueen said.
The business owners are pushing back, claiming that in fact it is the city's bias against Satmar Hasidim that is motivating the lawsuits.
"The only bias I see in these lawsuits is a stereotype by the City Commission of Human Rights that 'all Hasidim must be guilty of discrimination because they're all misogynists,' " said Marc Stern, a civil rights expert who works as counsel to the American Jewish Committee. Stern said he is informally advising the attorney representing the businesses. "It reflects a bias on the part of this commission."
The stores named in the lawsuits range from Friedman's Depot, a grocery store, at one end of the stretch, to Tiv-Tov hardware store, Lee Avenue Clothing Center, and Sander's Bakery, at the other end. Also being sued are Imperial Luggage and Gestetner Printing.
They have moved, as a group, to have the lawsuits dismissed, said Devora Allon, the lawyer representing the businesses. She is an associate in the New York office of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis.
"The complaints do not allege discriminatory intent, and that is what the human rights law outlaws," she told Haaretz. "The signs do not actually discriminate between men and women, and apply equally to men and women," Allon said. "No service was ever denied on the basis of how somebody was dressed."
Kirkland is representing the Williamsburg owners on a pro bono basis because, Allon said, the outcome of the cases "has implications for religious rights, and for religious freedoms."
Stern said that the complaints "were self-generated by the commission."
"It's not even clear these store owners ever enforced the signs," said Stern. "Where's the evidence?"
But Mulqueen of the commission said that people in Williamsburg "complained to us about having to observe these standards."
Businesses are allowed to set dress codes, said Stern, citing as examples private clubs in Manhattan, where "if you walked in in shorts and a halter top, you'd be tackled by the old doorman." He also said that employment discrimination courts have determined that each gender can have a different dress code, such as requiring skirts for women and suit and tie for men. "They've even upheld the Hooters dress code," which requires female servers to wear skimpy orange hotpants and cleavage-baring tops, he said.
"How is it, within three miles of the city commission's office, there are God knows how many restaurants with different gender-based dress codes, and the city commission doesn't pursue them?" said Stern. "If those don't get challenged why does this?"