NYC Challenges Right of Store Owners to Impose Dress Code on Patrons

The New York City Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) has filed complaints against seven Jewish Orthodox-owned stores in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for their conservative dress codes — codes for patrons rather than employees. 

sanders_bakeryThe complaints, including one against Sander’s Bakery (pictured), allege that the stores’ policies violate New York City’s Unlawful Discriminatory Practices Law, proscribing businesses from denying patrons “the advantages, facilities, and/or privileges of a public accommodation based upon their gender and creed.”

As reported, CCHR spokespersons have suggested that these modesty codes not only unlawfully discriminate against women, but also impose religious beliefs on others. Various advocates for the store owners argue that the posted policies of “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut neckline allowed in this store” are permissible.  After all, they do not make any explicit gender or religious classifications.  And indeed, there are many establishments that have policies such as “no shoes, no shirts, no service.”

But the geographic location in this section of  Williamsburg does have a particular valence.  Two years ago, Williamsburg’s Hasidic community made news for illegally posting signs that requested women to step aside when men approached them on the sidewalk. Around the same time, local businesses started publicly adopting dress codes as a push by Williamsburg’s “modesty patrol”, who wish for Jewish businesses and community members to conform with traditional standards of dress and discretion between the genders. Some have commented that such public activism within the community is a desire to differentiate themselves from the neighborhood’s rapidly increasing popularity with younger, more liberal crowds.

As the CCHR suit moves forward, it will certainly be one to watch.  It could have far reaching consequences regarding government’s ability to eliminate dress codes for patrons in stores as balanced against the rights of religious owners of commercial establishments to dictate the apparel of their customers.