As usual, I was struck by two seemingly unrelated items reported by Religion News Service on February 28, 2013. I think they are worth being reflected upon together.
The first story is about an action by the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which has decided to charge seven ultra-Orthodox Jewish businesses with gender discrimination. The businesses, all located in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, had put up signs urging customers to dress “modestly”. The signs read: “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut neckline allowed in this store.” Having some familiarity with such neighborhoods in Brooklyn, I find it hard to believe that any woman likely to frequent these stores would come dressed in the proscribed fashion. Cohorts of yeshiva students, unbearably aroused by the spectacle of barefoot and sleeveless temptresses, would have stopped the women long before they would arrive in these pious establishments. Such empirical considerations evidently did not trouble the minds of Mayor Bloomberg’s moral police. Clifford Mulqueen, deputy commissioner and general counsel of the Human Rights Commission, opined that the signs are “pretty specific to women”. Thus, “it seems pretty clear that it’s geared toward women dressing modestly if they choose to come into the store, and that would be discrimination.”
Marc Stern, an attorney working for the American Jewish Committee, charged that the Commission unfairly singles out Hasidic Jews. He pointed out that gender-specific dress codes are common in upscale restaurants and clubs. He could have asked the Commission whether it is discrimination against men if male customers at such establishments are required to put on a coat and a tie before being seated. (I still remember when years ago, on a big date, I was humiliated by being required to put on a shabby-looking, ill-fitting jacket supplied by the head waiter.) Devora Allon, the attorney representing the businesses, claimed that the signs are “gender neutral”. It would have helped her case if she had been able to cite a case involving a barefoot rabbi.
The second (cited here by RNS) features Bishop Robert Vasa, who heads the Roman Catholic diocese of Santa Rosa, California. He has now issued a statement that every teacher in a Catholic school in the diocese must be a “model of Catholic living” and must “adhere” to Catholic teaching, whether he himself is Catholic or not (25% of the teachers are not). Specifically mentioned are “modern errors” to be rejected: contraception, abortion, homosexual marriage and euthanasia, all “matters that gravely offend human dignity”. It is not assumed, as one reads the text, that non-Catholic teachers are supposed to pledge allegiance to a faith that they do not share (that, I am sure, would be in violation of Catholic teaching), but only that they “adhere” to Catholic positions in what they teach in school. As to the specific points enumerated—contraception and so on—these are supposed to be grounded in natural law rather than in specifically Catholic doctrine. Be this as it may, there is no question about the requirement being just that: Any teacher who expects to receive a contract for the 2013-14 school year must sign the document.
Understandably there has been some upset among the affected teachers. I would think that this would be particularly the case among the non-Catholics. Some teachers responded to journalists’ questions anonymously, saying that the requirement violated their consciences but that, given the consequences of a refusal to sign, they are still thinking about it. John Collins, the diocesan superintendent of schools, did not think that there was a problem here. He said that teachers in Catholic schools are somehow “signs of the bishop and the church”, and that adherence to Catholic doctrine “goes with the territory”. He added, “It’s the same way that you’re a sign of McDonald’s if you’re an employee to the point where they’ll put their uniform on you.” I wonder how many consciences were put at rest by this analogy.
Three quite rigid moral codes are involved in these two stories—those of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, of the egalitarianism of progressive ideology, and of conservative Roman Catholics. I owe no allegiance to any of the three. More importantly, neither do most Americans, including moderate Orthodox Jews who are more relaxed about how women dress, progressives who do not think that any differences between men and women must be ignored in public life, and the majority of American Catholics who ignore the teaching of their church on contraception. What the two stories have in common is an intention of coercion: The New York City Commission on Human Rights wants to use the full force of law to make these store owners remove the signs that express their moral beliefs. And Bishop Robert Vasa holds the threat of being fired from their jobs against those who might refuse to sign his document, even if it violates their beliefs. The representatives (“signs”, if you will) of the three codes are equally sure that they have the right, indeed obligation to enforce the respective codes in their jurisdiction.
Both stories, I believe, involve issues of freedom of religion—in American terms, of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. It seems to me that the peculiar views of haredi Jews about female modesty and of Catholic bishops about contraception clearly fall under the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion—however implausible these views may seem to most of their fellow-citizens. The City of New York, I think, intends to deprive this group of Jewish business owners of their constitutional right. However, I don’t see that the constitutional rights of the refusenik teachers in Santa Rosa are also protected by the First Amendment: Being employed by a Catholic school is not a civil right, and a church has the right to decide whom to employ in any of its institutions, even if the criteria for the decision seem unduly coercive to an outsider. This is an important difference: At the end point of a series of refusals by the Brooklyn store owners, the City of New York can throw them in jail. Bishop Vasa has no jail at his disposal. Mayor Bloomberg has an advantage over the bishop in this—and thus poses the more serious threat.