The New York City human rights commission is putting seven Jewish business owners on trial tomorrow for discrimination in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Orthodox Jewish business owners' supposed crime? Posting a dress code in storefront windows:
The human rights commission's case is so thin that one of their lead witnesses has a lengthy history of expressing anti-Israel sentiment.
But first, some background on what this is all about. Around the country, local and state governments are undermining free speech and attacking religious freedom with the aggressive use of human rights commissions, which have broad powers to haul individuals and business owners who run afoul of politically correct notions before sham "trials." These trials can result in significant fines and are administrative proceedings that don't give the accused many of the standard protections one would find in a real courtroom. In fact, the human rights commission is typically responsible for both prosecuting and rendering judgment on the accused. (For more on threat of human rights commissions, see this WEEKLY STANDARD article from last year.)
Williamsburg is well-known as one of the country's trendiest neighborhoods, and the fact that it's also home to a traditional Hasidic Jewish community has caused some tension in recent years. In November, I visited and interviewed two of the business owners being targeted by the city's human rights commission and never felt unwelcome—Sander’s Bakery, which has been in business for over 50 years, responded to a nosy reporter's questions and sent me home with enough free cookies and pastries to feed my kids for a week.
However, it's safe to say that the hipster fashions in Williamsburg aren't exactly at home in a traditional religious community that values modesty. The question, however, is whether a dress code is really discriminatory. The answer is obviously not—no one disputes fancy restaurants and, yes, courtrooms have a right to insist on dress codes along the lines of what was posted in the Hasidic businesses in Williamsburg.
In order for the New York City Commission on Human Rights to conclude the posted sign was discriminatory, they employed a line of reasoning that was at once absurd and hostile to the free exercise of religion. In its initial claim, the human rights commission tried to assert that because Hasidic Jews value modesty, the dress code was an attempt to foist their religion on others. In other words, restaurants and courtrooms could have an identical dress code posted, provided it was motivated by good taste or decorum. What makes the dress code discriminatory is not the code itself; it's the speculation it have been motivated by religious convictions.
In July, an administrative judge soundly rejected that reasoning, but gave the commission another chance to make its case. The human rights commission was essentially told that if it wanted to prove that the dress code was discriminatory, the offending signs must be proven to be some sort of coded attempt to keep outsiders out of the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. So the human rights commission went back to the drawing board and commissioned a survey designed to prove that the neighborhood residents found the dress code sign unwelcoming.
Now the commission's survey methodology is dubious for many reasons, and even still the results aren't exactly damning. The commission's own survey found that a plurality did not think the sign wouldn't make anyone feel discriminated against on the basis of religion, though it did find higher numbers of people who felt the sign was unwelcoming based on gender. The defense team for the Jewish businesses conducted its own survey about reactions to the sign and produced markedly different results—87 percent of respondents thought the sign was welcoming to both men and women. The defense team is also presenting the head of the research firm that conducted their survey in the trial to testify to the scientific credibility of their survey. It's telling that the prosecution isn't offering up any expert to testify to the validity of their survey, something might not even be allowed in a real court of law and should go a long way to discrediting the human rights commission's survey.