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NYCLU Challenges Coast Guard Ban On Religious Head Coverings In License Photographs

The New York Civil Liberties Union, working with the New York University Law School Civil Rights Clinic, filed a federal lawsuit in Manhattan today challenging a Coast Guard regulation that withholds merchant marine licenses from people who do not remove their religious head coverings.

Plaintiff Khalid Hakim is a devout Muslim who for nearly three decades has worn a kufi, a knitted skull cap worn by many Muslim men, whenever he has been in public. Mr. Hakim has served in the merchant marine working for private shipping companies since 1973, and until 2001 he regularly received required licenses from the Coast Guard using photographs in which he wore his kufi. But when Mr. Hakim first went to renew his license after September 11th, 2001, the Coast Guard told him that he would have to remove his kufi for the photograph or forgo the license.

“Since September 11th American Muslims have experienced harassment and pressure to change their religious observances,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “Such tampering with a person’s religious practices is unacceptable – and when our government does it, it’s illegal.”

Without his license Mr. Hakim was unable to work as a merchant marine for nearly a year. Shortly before the filing of today’s case, the Coast Guard without explanation issued a new license to Mr. Hakim, but the Coast Guard continues to insist that as a matter of policy there are no exceptions to its regulation. Mr.. Hakim lives in fear that he will be denied his license renewal again when this license expires, and many others may be being denied licenses under the Coast Guard regulation.

“Religious tolerance is as important after 9/11 as it was before 9/11,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU Associate Legal Director. “Government policies that needlessly violate religious beliefs are wrong and unlawful.”

Mr. Hakim has worked as a merchant marine since he was 25 years old. His lifelong interest in seafaring began in grade school, when he read “Shackleton’s Valiant Voyage,” a story about a small boat expedition to the South Pole.

The merchant marine consists of commercial ships that transport cargo in U.S. waters and on the seas. Seamen like Mr. Hakim are not members of the military, but they must hold a Merchant Mariner’s Documents (MMDs) from the Coast Guard in order to sail in U.S. waters.

The NYCLU brings its action against the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, and the officer in charge of regulations at the Coast Guard Examination Center. The suit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

NYU law students Bukola Aina, Deepa Varma, and Katherine Worden are working with Mr. Dunn as counsel on Mr. Hakim’s case.

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