The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit challenging a New York State policy that forbids New York State prison guards from wearing religious head coverings.
The NYCLU sued on behalf of Abdus Samad N. Haqq, a devout Muslim who works at a state work-release facility in Harlem. State officials recently informed Mr. Haqq that he could not wear a kufi while on duty, claiming that guard uniform regulations bar the wearing of religious items -- despite the fact that Haqq had been wearing the kufi on duty for many years without problem or complaint. According to the Acting Commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services, "[T]he Department is vehemently opposed to the granting of any accommodations to security staff employees which alter the uniform grooming regulations for reasons of religious practice."
"Freedom of religion is one of our most cherished rights, and the state of New York cannot force public employees to surrender their religious beliefs as a condition of keeping their jobs," said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman.
The New York State prison system's refusal to accommodate the religious beliefs of prison guards stands in stark contrast to the policies of other agencies. The New York City Department of Correction allows guards to wear religious head coverings, and every major branch of the United States military allows its members to do so. Earlier this year the United States Coast Guard, in response to another lawsuit filed by the NYCLU, abandoned its policy of barring members of the merchant marine from wearing religious head coverings in their license photographs.
"The state's ban is wrong and illegal," said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn. "Many other agencies allow their employees to wear kufis and other religious head coverings -- because that's what the law requires. We call on New York State to change its policy and to respect the religious rights of its employees."
The NYCLU filed the lawsuit in conjunction with the NYU Civil Rights Clinic. NYU law students Sarah Brenner, Daniel Clarkson, and Nirav Shah are working on the case. NYCLU Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton is also counsel on the case.