Religion and ‘No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service’

Here’s a rather slanted but interesting story from the New York Post yesterday describing the anger that “Hasidic Dress Codes” have elicited among members of the public who would like to frequent Hasidic businesses.  According to the story:

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish business owners are lashing out at customers at dozens of stores in Williamsburg, trying to ban sleeveless tops and plunging necklines from their aisles. It’s only the latest example of the Hasidic community trying to enforce their strict religious laws for everyone who lives near their New York enclave.   “No Shorts, No Barefoot, No Sleeveless, No Low Cut Neckline Allowed in the Store,” declare the English/Spanish signs that appear in stores throughout the Hasidic section of the hipster haven.

The story reminds me of what I saw on my recent trip to Rome.  The heavily underenforced rule for churches is that one should not enter without proper attire.  Shorts, sleeveless shirts, flip flops or sandals, and the like, are not appropriate for certain locations.  There is also often a stricture about making noise, and in the Sistine Chapel, the stricture was enforced.  When things got too loud, the guards would tell people to be quiet. 

Of course, these sorts of rules cause consternation and bafflement on the part of tourists and others who feel that they should be allowed to do as they please, and that any restriction on their freedom to bare their bodies or imprint the ugliness of their voices on the world around them at whatever decibel level they desire is a violation of the most fundamental rules of democratic society, or individual liberty, or the right to be me, or human agency, or whatever. 

That is in part why I very much disagree with the comments of Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Cardozo Law School, who said this with respect to the controversy in Brooklyn: “It’s further evidence of this era’s move toward Balkanization in the United States,” said Marci Hamilton, a First Amendment scholar at Cardozo School of Law. “It’s no longer sufficient that they have shared norms among themselves, they are increasingly trying to impose their norms on the rest of the culture.”

With respect, I believe that view gets things backward.  No one is compelling anyone to enter into any religious establishments against his or her will, or to wear anything that he or she would not otherwise want to wear.  Of course, if you choose to avail yourself of the goods and services at particular establishments, abiding by minimum standards of decorum set by the owners or operators of those establishments and which are part of the religious traditions of those establishments is hardly “un-American,” unless it is un-American to be polite and respectful of another religious tradition’s mores when one is actually voluntarily participating in the tradition’s very own institutions and establishments.  To the contrary, what is “un-American” is the compelled imposition of general mores and standards of behavior (such as they are) on the unwilling on the inside of their own religious establishments. 

2 responses

  1. I can only presume, given your post, that you approve of these actions, all mentioned in the article:

    1) On the B110, a privately operated public bus line that runs through Orthodox Williamsburg and Borough Park, women are told to sit in back, also in accordance with Orthodox customs.

    2) The neighborhood embarked on a successful 2009 crusade to remove bike lanes from a 14-block stretch of Bedford Avenue — fearful of the scantily clad gals who would pedal through.

    3) Even Hillary Clinton was caught up in the mix last year — her image in the situation room the night of Osama bin Laden’s killing was scrubbed from a Brooklyn-based Hasidic newspaper because readers might have been offended by a woman’s presence in a sea of men.

    There is a tremendous difference between people being scantily clad in a church and in a business. (Note I write as someone who has scolded tourists for making undue noise or sitting in large chatty groups on the floor in Saint Peter’s.) Public accommodation law is very clear in this respect. Under your logic, Hasidim would be able to ban women from their stores. This is contrary to this nation’s established law and protected constitutional rights.

  2. DHM Carver, I wasn’t aware that I was advancing any “logic.” I was defending the position that a minimum standard of dress was permissible inside Hasidic business establishments. Is the difference one of degree from the ‘no women in the front of the bus’ rule? Perhaps it is. But it seems to me that we make many perfectly defensible distinctions in the law which are ones of degree and ones of experience, rather than ones of “logic.”

    Thanks for the comment.

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