U.S. Justice Department Joins NYCLU in Fight for Religious Freedom for New York Prison Guards

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
March 15, 2007 12:00 am

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State Policy Barring Prison Guards from Wearing Religious Items is Unconstitutional, NYCLU Says

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

Prompted by a lawsuit filed by the NYCLU in October on behalf of a corrections officer who was barred from wearing a kufi – a rounded cap traditionally worn by Muslims – the Justice Department has filed a related lawsuit 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 is an officer at a state work-release facility in Manhattan. State officials barred Haqq from wearing a kufi while on duty, claiming that religious items are not allowed under uniform regulations. 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.”

The NYCLU continues to represent Haqq, while the Justice Department’s lawsuit focuses more broadly on the effects of the state’s policy, and seeks to vindicate the rights of all New York 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 Justice Department’s complaint is available at: www.nyclu.org/pdfs/haqq_doj_complaint_031507.pdf

The NYCLU’s complaint is available at: www.nyclu.org/pdfs/haqq_complaint_100506.pdf

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