NEW YORK – The New York City Commission on Human Rights announced last week it had reached a settlement in a lawsuit against seven stores in the hassidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, over what the city called discriminatory practices.
The shops – businesses privately owned by hassidic families – had displayed signs in their windows asking customers to cover up before entering: “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut neckline allowed in this store,” the signs read.
The city filed suit against the stores displaying these signs in August 2012, saying they were discriminatory against non-Orthodox women and men. Hours before the suit was to be heard, Judge John Spooner took the parties aside for discussion and reached an agreement.
The merchants will now display signs reading “while modest dress is appreciated, all individuals are welcome to enter the stores free from discrimination.”
The judge also ruled the stores will not have to pay the $7,500 fine the commission attempted to impose.
Patricia Gatling, New York’s commissioner on human rights, said in a statement, “The commission is satisfied that the store owners understand their obligations under the NYC Human Rights Law – the nation’s strongest civil rights law – that protects those who live, work in, or visit New York City from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations.”
For those in Williamsburg, the end of the suit is a weight off of many shoulders, in what was considered by many in the community to be a shocking, and rather scary, overreach of power.
City Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents Brooklyn’s 33rd district, which covers part of Williamsburg, said in a statement that, “To single out these small businesses from Williamsburg – businesses that are an important part of this community and who took down the signs in question immediately upon request – and to then impose thousands of dollars in fines against them, would have been an overreach and would have threatened their future existence. I applaud the commission for dropping this case and congratulate the small business owners and their lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis.”
“While we believe that the signs, which simply requested that customers respect the community’s values with regard to dress, were entirely legal,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president, “we are happy that the issue here is closed.” Zweibel added that he believes the suit “should never have been brought in the first place,” and that “the commission’s pursuit of the Williamsburg store owners raised serious concerns of selective prosecution.”
Zwiebel also praised the newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for “apparently realizing the disturbing aspect of this suit, its lack of legal merit, and the need for reason and good will here.” Because of a rapidly growing population, the Orthodox Jewish community has become politically important in recent elections, and by many estimates is likely to continue to grow in both size and importance. The administration apparently did not want to be seen as picking on the hassidic community so early in de Blasio’s term, which was how many people had characterized the suit.
Jay Lefkowitz, head of the team of lawyers that represented that stores pro-bono, argued before the judge that the signs were not racist, not sexist, and were in fact no different than the dress codes required at any upscale restaurant or establishment elsewhere in New York. He said his clients were “happy to have this behind them.”
Lefkowitz and Rabbi David Niederman, director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, the organization to whom the shops in question came for help when the suit was initiated, both emphasized that no one had ever been kicked out of a store or was actively discriminated against because of what they were wearing or how they looked.
“It was an unbelievable overreach,” Niederman told The Jerusalem Post. “There was no complainant this case. No one ever came forward to say ‘We were not served.’ It was just out of the blue and totally unacceptable.”
Niederman said the community was very happy the suit was over. “We’re happy small businesses don’t have to make a decision [either] to pay a hefty fine or to put food on the table for their families.
We hope that we are an era now with a new administration that looks and cares also for small businesses, that they can succeed and make a living, and for communities to be able to lead their lives the way they want.”