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Department Of Justice Joins NYCLU In Challenging State Policy Barring Prison Guards From Wearing Religious Head Coverings

The United States Department of Justice today joined the New York Civil Liberties Union in challenging a New York State policy that forbids state corrections officers from wearing religious head coverings.

Prompted by a lawsuit filed by the NYCLU in October on behalf of a Muslim corrections officer who was barred from wearing a kufi, the DOJ has filed a related suit charging the State with a pattern and practice of religious discrimination against its corrections officers.

“We couldn’t be happier that the Department of Justice is standing up with us for freedom of religion,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn. “As a public employer and prison administrator itself, the federal government knows better than anyone that public employees, including prison guards, should not be forced to surrender their religious beliefs as a condition of keeping their jobs.”

On October 5, 2007, the NYCLU sued on behalf of Abdus Samad N. Haqq, a devout Muslim who works at a state work-release facility in Manhattan. State officials barred Mr. Haqq from wearing a kufi while on duty, claiming that uniform regulations forbade wearing religious items. 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.”

While the NYCLU represents Mr. Haqq, the DOJ’s lawsuit focuses more broadly on the effects of the State’s policy barring religious accommodations to the uniform code, and seeks to vindicate the rights of all State corrections officers.

“The Department of Justice’s involvement in this suit should send a strong signal to the State that its policy is both unlawful and bad judgment,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton. “We hope this will prompt the Department of Correctional Services to reconsider and grant all corrections officers, including our client, the religious freedom to which they are entitled.”

The Department of Justice’s complaint is available in PDF on the NYCLU’s website here.

The NYCLU’s complaint is also available here.

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