For a young chasidic woman intent on getting in a workout, there was no skirting this issue.
Yosefa Jalal had been working out peacefully for several months at the Kings Highway branch of Lucille Roberts until, in October of 2013, when, the 25-year-old teacher said, she was “targeted, harassed, screamed at, and banned” for exercising in a fitted, knee-length skirt.
Last week, she exercised her First Amendment rights by filing a lawsuit against the fitness chain Friday in Manhattan federal court.
In court papers, Jalal claims “repeated religious discrimination,” and asks for an injunction against her membership revocation as well as unspecified damages.
“I want to go back. What they did was wrong,” Jalal, who prefers to exercise in a women-only environment, told The Jewish Week. She said she knows of several other Orthodox women who also have been ordered to leave Lucille Roberts locations for the same reason.
Her lawsuit is the latest example of religious freedom clashes, a topic that has drawn increased notice in the past year. Several fundamentalist Christians, both public officials and owners of private businesses, have drawn criticism in some circles for such actions as refusing requests by same-sex couples for such items as marriage certificates and wedding cakes.
In a related case, a District Court judge last week ordered the Village of Pomona, in Rockland County, to explain why it has denied a Jewish group permission to build and operate a rabbinical school.
The Long Island native, who is currently earning a master’s in education at Hofstra University, began wearing clothing that covers her elbows and knees after adopting a Torah-observant lifestyle four years ago.
She said she worked out in a skirt for several months at the Lucille Roberts branch on Kings Highway in the Flatbush neighborhood until an employee shouted at her for wearing a skirt and, implying it was a safety hazard, was told she would have to leave unless she took it off.
She returned to the Kings Highway branch soon after, and continued to work out without incident for a year, when a manager at the Kings Highway branch kicked her out again.
She switched her to the Flatbush Avenue branch in Downtown Brooklyn and worked out peacefully for eight months, but over the summer of 2015, she was kicked out twice, with an employee telling her the second that her membership “has been revoked,” she was “trespassing,” and that “the police are on the way.”
Jalal said she explained each time that she was wearing a skirt for religious reasons, to no avail. She has not returned to a Lucille Roberts gym since then, but works out on her own in her cramped Crown Heights apartment, she said.
“Ms. Jalal wants to work out, be fit, take classes and be allowed to attend Lucille Roberts in peace, without sacrificing her religious beliefs,” states the complaint, which was filed by the Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady firm. “At the gym, Ms. Jalal would always wear a knee-length, fitted but comfortable skirt. Given its length and fit, the skirt could not possibly interfere with any gym equipment … if anything, the skirt was safer to use on Lucille Roberts’ gym equipment than a pair of knee-length, baggy shorts, or a sweatshirt tied around the waist.
“The skirt did not violate Lucille Roberts’ “Dress Code,” which discourages gymwear (e.g., sweatpants),” the complaint continues. “But apparently, Ms. Jalal’s Jewish modesty did offend Lucille Roberts’ self-image of a health club filled with ‘strong, sexy and confident women.’”
According to the fitness chain’s “Member Rules and Regulations,” women are advised to “dress appropriately. Flannel may be making a comeback this fall, but is still inappropriate gym attire. This also goes for denim and street clothes. This may be a ladies gym but you should still look your best.”
A Lucille Roberts spokesperson has not responded to a request for an interview made by The Jewish Week last week, but issued a statement denying that employees were discriminating against Jalal.
“Here at Lucille Roberts we take the safety of our members very seriously. Our decision to uphold a dress policy, consistent with industry standards and equipment manufacturers, is not an attempt to hinder any personal religious beliefs,” the statement said. “Lucille Roberts is dedicated to providing a safe and healthy exercise environment for all our members.”
Several sports equipment manufacturers contacted by The Jewish Week said they don’t think wearing a knee-length skirt while using their machines is a safety hazard and the websites of several national health club chains contained no dress code baring such clothing.
Attorney Ilann Maazel, who has also filed a complaint with the state’s Commissioner of Human Rights, argued in court papers that Jalal is not the only “observant Jewish women” to be harassed and kicked out and that the company is “systematically discriminating against modest, observant Jewish women, for no defensible reason” and that it should pay punitive damages for “Jalal’s loss of membership, as well as embarrassment, shame, fear, and other emotional harm … [caused by the company’s] reckless indifference to Ms. Jalal’s civil rights.”