The Volokh Conspiracy
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See Jalal v. Lucille Roberts Health Clubs Inc., just decided this week by a federal district court in New York. Yosefa Jalal argued that Lucille Roberts Health Clubs violated Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the federal law that bans discrimination based on race, religion and national origin in some places of public accommodation—by enforcing its dress code against her religiously motivated clothing. The court concluded that there was no evidence that the club discriminated against her because of her religion; rather, it appeared that "the factual allegations only suggest that she was treated differently because she insisted on wearing an article of clothing that, according to defendant, was inappropriate gym attire." And though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act expressly requires employers to give reasonable religious exemptions from generally applicable job rules, when they can do so without any real cost (that's the "religious accommodation" requirement), Title II has no such requirement; other lower courts had held the same thing.
The particular clothing controversy here, by the way, was over Jalal's wanting to wear "a knee-length, fitted but comfortable skirt," something the health club was allegedly militantly against. (The club's written dress policy didn't expressly ban skirts, but places of public accommodation can set up and enforce informal and oral policies, or even act on a case-by-case basis, so long as there's no evidence that they are targeting people based on their religion.) The club said that skirts were a safety hazard:
[E]xercise equipment is dangerous and any clothing that hinders an individual's mobility or has the ability to be caught in the mechanics of the equipment significantly increases the risk of the danger. Improper use of exercise equipment is not only dangerous for the person using the equipment, but can be dangerous for those surrounding the individual, because it is not unlikely that both can be dragged by the machine.
Jalal said that, "Given its length and its fit, the skirt could not possibly interfere with—and did not interfere with—any gym equipment" and that "Lucille Roberts encouraged Ms. Jalal to wear alternative clothing (a long, loose t-shirt) that, if anything, would have posed a greater safety concern." She also alleged that the health club "banned her because her display of religious modesty defied its invidious stereotype of a 'strong, sexy and confident' woman" (referring here to the club's slogan).
Note that this is the analysis under federal law. Some states do read their public accommodations statutes as requiring religious exemptions, see, e.g., Yeager v. Ohio Civil Rights Comm'n (Ohio Ct. App. 2002); indeed, Matter of Chui (Ohio Civ. Rts. Comm'n 1986) held that a restaurant violated the law by enforcing its no-head-coverings-for-men policy against a Muslim patron who was wearing a religiously required head covering. But as I read New York state and New York City statutes, they (like federal law) require religious accommodation in employment but not in public accommodations; Jalal remains free to sue in state court based on those statutes, but I doubt that she would win.
For those who are curious, Jalal describes herself as "an observant young woman who follows Jewish rules of modesty. She wears skirts and tights to cover her legs and shirts that cover her elbows and come up to her neck." I'm not sure whether Orthodox Jewish women generally share Jalal's views that a skirt is necessary for exercise around other women and that a short skirt is sufficient (though the view seems to be not unheard of). But if there was a requirement that public accommodations provide religious exemptions, it would turn on the particular claimant's individual sincere religious beliefs, not on whether coreligionists agree with those beliefs.
Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.