MANHATTAN (CN) – The New York City Police Department was hit with a class action Friday demanding it stop forcing Muslim women to remove their headscarves for mug shots.
Two Muslim women – Jamilla Clark from New Jersey and Arwa Aziz from Brooklyn – along with the Muslim advocacy group Turning Point claim that the NYPD’s policy of requiring Muslims to remove their religious headscarves for arrest photos violates the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause.
The 27-page class action was filed Friday in Manhattan federal court by lead attorney O. Andrew Wilson of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady. The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations also serves as counsel to the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit seeks undetermined monetary penalties, but the filing comes two weeks after New York City agreed to pay $60,000 each to three Muslim women who were forced to remove their hijabs for booking photos dating back to 2012.
According to the complaint, Clark wept and begged to keep her hijab on in a Manhattan police station, feeling “exposed and violated without her [hijab] – as if she were naked in a public space,” after NYPD officers threatened prosecution if she did not remove the garment.
The existence of photographs of Clark without her head covered being viewed by non-family members haunts and distresses her, she claims.
Aziz was allegedly forced to stand in front of a dozen NYPD officers and 30 male inmates with her hijab pushed down to her shoulders.
Police officers in the Brooklyn building insisted “it’s the law,” according to the complaint.
“Ms. Clark and Ms. Aziz endured this trauma and anguish because of an official NYPD policy that forces arrestees to remove their religious head coverings for an official department photograph that is kept forever, visible to all who can access the NYPD’s main database or have occasion to view an arrestee’s paper file,” the lawsuit states.
Co-plaintiff Turning Point for Women and Families provides free and confidential counseling, advocacy and referral services for Muslim women and children affected by domestic violence. It seeks compensatory damages for its “diversion of resources and frustration of mission suffered by defendant’s unlawful conduct.”
Both the U.S. State Department and Citizenship and Immigration Services have policies in place that accommodate religious practices for photographs.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the majority of U.S. states allow exceptions for those who, for religious reasons, do not wish to be photographed without headcoverings for drivers’ licenses.
A spokesman from the New York City Law Department said they would review the complaint but avowed that they are “confident that the police department’s religious head covering policy passes constitutional muster.”
The city spokesman insists the NYPD’s policy – which they said accommodates people who do not wish to remove religious head coverings in front of others by offering the option of being photographed in a separate, more private facility – “carefully balances the department’s respect for the customs of all religions with the legitimate law enforcement need to take arrest photos.”
Albert Fox Cahn, legal director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement Friday, “Our city is quick to make progressive promises, but slow to enact reforms.”
“It is intolerable that our officers force Muslim women to uncover against their will. It’s time for New York City to live up to our promise of being a sanctuary for all faiths – we’ve fallen short for too long,” he added.
Putting the issue of Muslims’ civil rights into a timely context, Cahn noted, “This is a moment when Muslim New Yorkers need our support, not abuse. In just the past two years, New York State saw a 974 percent increase in anti-Muslim harassment, discrimination and hate crimes.”