New York City residents have lots to worry about. The city’s outstanding debt exceeds $100 billion. The interest alone exceeds $6 billion annually. The city’s tax base continues to shrink as businesses, fed up with New York’s high rates, flee to lower-tax jurisdictions. The city’s infrastructure desperately needs an upgrade. And Hasidic shopkeepers in Brooklyn are engaged in a blatant campaign to violate customers’ human rights.
At least that’s what the city’s 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 city’s 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 don’t discriminate against protected classes. On its face, it’s not clear how this dress code is discriminatory. It treats men and women the same. Let’s say a barefoot woman wearing shorts walks into a store. She may be asked to leave. Let’s say a barefoot man in shorts tries to do the same thing. He also may be asked to leave. Where’s the discrimination? Now, it’s 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, there’s no evidence that the stores have ever excluded any woman–or man, for that matter– for any reason.
In short, it’s not clear where the illegality lies. But there’s 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 that’s what the store owner wants? Is the injustice really so great that the store owner must be hauled into court and taught a lesson? Aren’t there more important problems for the city to tackle?
Sugary soft drinks, for instance.
Meredith Render (U. of Alabama School of Law) has posted Religious Practice and Sex Discrimination: An Uneasy Case for Toleration. The abstract follows.
This essay considers two questions: (1) whether there are moral or instrument reasons to tolerate religious practices that contravene our fundamental public values; and (2) in instances in which there is no moral or instrumental reason to tolerate a practice that contravenes public values, whether it is appropriate to condition the availability of tax exempt status on religious institutions’ fidelity to public values.
The essay offers a response and supplement to the insights contained in Caroline Mala Corbin’s interesting essay, “Expanding the Bob Jones Compromise” in which Corbin thoughtfully argues that we should withdraw tax exempt status from religious institutions that discriminate on the basis of sex. Corbin observes that tax exempt status is already conditioned on nondiscrimination with respect to race, and she offers the insight that there is no principled reason to treat sex and race discrimination differently in the this context. While this essay accepts the latter insight, I argue that there may be instrumental reasons why we would be concerned about the government determining which religious practices contravene our nondiscrimination norms and which do not. I further raise concerns about the mechanism Corbin selects (conditional tax exempt status) in light of Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court’s latest articulation of the degree of protection offered by the Religious Clauses to religious practices that implicate the selection of ministers.