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When A Health Club's Dress Code Conflicts With A Member's Religious Beliefs

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Paul R. Bedard, EsquirePaul R. Bedard, Esquire

Most health club owners and operators have had to decline or terminate someone's membership against that person's will for any number of reasons. Theft, threatening conduct, inappropriate attire and unsafe use of equipment are just some of the reasons that immediately come to mind. Yet, when does denying someone membership constitute illegal discrimination? It depends. Some instances of such discrimination are blatant, while others require individual analysis of the facts at issue and the federal, state and local laws that apply within the jurisdiction.

This article will provide a brief overview of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It will also detail a recent federal court decision in a case alleging a health club's violation of the Act, as well as violations of state and local laws. However, this article is not intended as legal advice. State and local laws specific to each jurisdiction prohibit one-size-fits-all recommendations. Please consider these comments as merely an educational guide to assist you when you consult your own attorney for specific direction.

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in places of public accommodation. The law declares that all people shall be entitled "to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations of any place of public accommodation... without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion or national origin." Title II was enacted with a goal of eliminating the discriminatory denials of access to places of public accommodation and the humiliation and indignity associated with these denials. Hotels, restaurants, theaters and health clubs are all examples of places of public accommodation.

A Recent Federal Court Decision

Just last month, a federal court in New York addressed whether a health club was in violation of Title II due to religious discrimination. The case, Yosefa Jalal v. Lucille Roberts Health Clubs, Inc., particularly centered on whether it was discriminatory for a health club to enforce a dress code that was contrary to a member's religious requirement. The plaintiff, Yosefa Jalal, alleged violations of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and violations of New York State's and New York City's human rights laws. Ms. Jalal is a Jewish woman who wears a knee-length fitted skirt in public for religious reasons, attire that is contrary to Lucille Roberts' dress code.

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