One month after the New York Civil Liberties Union sued to challenge a United States Coast Guard regulation that violated the religious rights of members of the merchant marine, the Coast Guard has abandoned the regulation.
The change of policy assures that those seeking to work in the merchant marine will not have to remove religious head coverings in order to obtain Coast Guard licenses.
"Since 9/11 the Muslim community has been under fire," said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director. "We welcome the government's recognition that Muslims should be able to obtain licenses without having to sacrifice their religious beliefs."
On March 28 the NYCLU filed suit against the United States Department of Homeland Security (of which the Coast Guard is now a part) challenging a Coast Guard regulation that requires members of the merchant marine to obtain licenses using photographs with their heads completely uncovered. The plaintiff in the suit, Khalid Hakim, is a devout Muslim who has been in the merchant marine for 30 years and who always had obtained licenses while wearing a kufi -- a knitted cap worn by Muslim men which did not obstruct Mr. Hakim's face in any way -- until the first time he sought to renew his license after September 11, 2001. At that time, the Coast Guard insisted he submit photos with his head uncovered. He refused to do so on religious grounds, and his license renewal was rejected.
On Monday, April 24, just before an initial conference in the case before Southern District Judge Jed Rakoff, the United States Attorney's Office informed the NYCLU that the Coast Guard had issued a guidance directing field offices to enforce the regulation so as to accommodate religious beliefs and thus to permit the use of photos with religious head coverings so long as the applicant could be identified. As a result, Mr. Hakim and others will be able to obtain merchant marine licenses without sacrificing their religious beliefs.
"Rules barring all head coverings invariably and needlessly violate important religious beliefs," said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, who is lead counsel on the case. "We shouldn't have to sue to get the government to respect religious freedoms, but we appreciate the Coast Guard's change of policy."