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Waging War on Willy

Eytan Kobre

The Supreme Court does it, as do country clubs. So why can’t chassidic store owners in Williamsburg tell people how to dress?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

New York City is suing a group of chassidic store owners inWilliamsburg over signs that advise patrons to dress modestly while shopping. The city claims religious and gender discrimination, but the defendants see a case of myopia at best and discrimination at worst.

For people who still remember the turbulent 1960s, one name that stands out from that era is the Chicago Seven, a group of countercultural radicals — many of them Jewish — who violently disrupted the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago and turned their subsequent trial into a circus that scandalized the nation. Forty-five years later, the Lee Avenue Seven, a group of Jews as different from the Chicago Seven as night is from day, is being put on trial by the government for their own insistence on bucking society’s prevailing cultural norms.

The defendants, all longtime, businesspeople in Brooklyn’s chassidic community ofWilliamsburg, are being prosecuted byNew York City’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) for gender and religion-based discrimination. Their small shops along a three-block stretch of Lee Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s main shopping districts, gained instant notoriety back in the summer of 2012 when an 8½-by-11 inch sign was posted in the stores’ windows that read (in English and Spanish): “No Shorts, No Barefoot, No Sleeveless, No Low-Cut Neckline Allowed in this Store,” along with one line in Hebrew stating “Here One Enters Only in Modest Attire.”

A New York Post article broke the story of the signs, claiming with typical hyperbolic bombast that Brooklyn had “lost its right to bare arms,” and quoting a law professor who opined that Williamsburg’s insularity is “dangerous for tolerance and … dangerous for peace.” The article, however, also quoted an attorney forNew York City to the effect that the signs “appeared kosher, provided they don’t ‘impermissibly discriminate based upon gender, religion, or some other protected class.’”

But just weeks later, the commission decided to issue summonses and impose hefty fines on the stores despite the absence of any actual complaints of discrimination or, indeed, any evidence that anyone had ever been denied entry or service as a result of the signs. The store owners, now defendants, secured legal counsel, and the case has been progressing toward a January 2014 trial beforeNew York Cityadministrative law judge John Spooner.


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