A photograph shows a woman wearing a hijab.

A photograph shows a woman wearing a hijab. Credit: Getty Images/kimberrywood

Two recent cases involving the removal of defendants' religious garments while in the custody of law enforcement are shining the spotlight on policies governing those practices on Long Island.

In Suffolk County, a policy that permits police officers to remove religious head garments from defendants came under fire last month after an East Setauket woman sued the county. The lawsuit prompted newly elected Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine to order a review of the policy.

In Nassau County, advocates for Long Island’s Muslim community are calling on Nassau officials to develop a clear policy on religious garments. Nassau leaves decisions regarding religious headwear to the police department and sheriff’s office. The lack of a clear and codified policy, Muslim community advocates warn, could lead to abuses, either through ignorance or prejudice.

The issue surfaced in a Nassau County courtroom in October, when Acting Supreme Court Justice Philippe Solages told an attorney for a Muslim defendant that the woman had to remove a niqab, a religious garment that covers most of the face, to verify her identity. New York State Court officials are reviewing the incident.

Long Island is home to an estimated 80,000 Muslims, with dozens of mosques and Islamic centers across Nassau and Suffolk, and it is important for law enforcement officials to understand and respect the growing community’s beliefs, advocates say.

The New York City Police Department and other police departments across the nation — including Yonkers, Dearborn Heights, Michigan, and Long Beach, California — have in recent years adopted policies allowing arrestees to wear religious garments.

Courts at the state and federal level in New York have similar policies regarding religious garments.

Defendants and visitors are permitted to wear hijabs, turbans and other religious headwear in New York courts, according to a spokesman for the New York State Office of Court Administration. “There are no restrictions on religious head coverings at New York State courthouses and proceedings,” said the spokesman, Al Baker.

Religious headwear is also permitted in federal courts in Central Islip and Brooklyn, according to a spokesman for the Eastern District of New York.

Inmates at Suffolk County jails are also permitted to wear hijabs and other religious head coverings, according to Vicki DiStefano, a spokeswoman for Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. They are allowed to wear the garments during the mug shot process as long as their faces are clearly visible, she said.

The federal lawsuit filed by Marowa Fahmy on Jan. 8 alleges Suffolk police violated her First Amendment religious rights by refusing to return her hijab for nine hours, even after she explained her Muslim beliefs require her to keep her head, hair and neck covered while in the company of men outside her immediate family. The complaint also said officers forced Fahmy to partially undress in front of male police officers.

A Suffolk police spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit filed on Fahmy’s behalf by the Council on American-Islamic Relations New York and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel, a Manhattan civil rights law firm.

The lawsuit names the county as the sole defendant and seeks to change what it calls a flawed policy.

Romaine publicly responded to Fahmy’s complaint in mid-January, saying he would review the policy.

“While officer safety is a critical concern in any police-citizen encounter, my administration does not condone any policy which would compromise a person’s religious beliefs or customs,” Romaine said in the statement. “Religious freedom is a cornerstone of our democracy, and I will immediately review our policies and procedures with the Suffolk County Police Department.”

Romaine spokesman Michael Martino later said he could not discuss what, if any, steps had been taken to review the policy with Suffolk police since the announcement was made.

Fahmy attorney Andrew Wilson said he has not been contacted by Romaine’s office or police department officials since Romaine issued his statement.

Burhan Carroll, another Fahmy lawyer and a staff attorney at CAIR-NY, said he, too, has not been contacted by Romaine or his staff, but called the announcement “a positive sign and certainly welcome.”

The attorney for the 37-year-old woman in the Nassau case told the judge that showing her face would violate her religious beliefs, and her identity was eventually verified through other means.

Nassau leaves decisions about head garments to the discretion of the police department and sheriff’s office, County Executive Bruce Blakeman said in a statement to Newsday.

“The Nassau County police and sheriff’s departments have discretion on the legal procedures they may take when making contact with inmates and the public,” Blakeman said. “Our officers are trained to be sensitive to the customs and traditions of every religion and ethnic group in the county and treat everyone with respect and dignity.”

Nassau County should provide police and correction officers with a “standardized, easily drawn bright line” so officers understand detainees’ rights and their own responsibilities, Carroll said.

“There should be a county policy,” agreed Hussain Ahmad, president of the Long Island Muslim Society in East Meadow, who teaches international business at Hofstra University. “There should be a uniform policy on how to handle these matters.”

Nassau police declined to comment when asked if Muslim women are required to remove hijabs while being photographed for mug shots.

Many practicing Muslims believe women should wear full sleeves and cover their hair, heads and necks while in the presence of men outside their immediate families. According to the Fahmy lawsuit, requiring a woman to remove the hijab in the presence of male officers was a “profound defilement of the wearer’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”

 Ahmad said he has offered to connect Islamic scholars with Long Island’s law enforcement agencies to provide insights into his religion.

“Our police departments need to provide intercultural and interreligious training to their officers,” Ahmad said.

Two recent cases involving the removal of defendants' religious garments while in the custody of law enforcement are shining the spotlight on policies governing those practices on Long Island.

In Suffolk County, a policy that permits police officers to remove religious head garments from defendants came under fire last month after an East Setauket woman sued the county. The lawsuit prompted newly elected Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine to order a review of the policy.

In Nassau County, advocates for Long Island’s Muslim community are calling on Nassau officials to develop a clear policy on religious garments. Nassau leaves decisions regarding religious headwear to the police department and sheriff’s office. The lack of a clear and codified policy, Muslim community advocates warn, could lead to abuses, either through ignorance or prejudice.

The issue surfaced in a Nassau County courtroom in October, when Acting Supreme Court Justice Philippe Solages told an attorney for a Muslim defendant that the woman had to remove a niqab, a religious garment that covers most of the face, to verify her identity. New York State Court officials are reviewing the incident.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Two recent cases involving the removal of defendants' religious garments while in the custody of law enforcement are shining the spotlight on policies governing those practices on Long Island.
  • In Suffolk County, a policy that permits police officers to remove religious head garments from defendants came under fire last month after an East Setauket woman sued the county.
  • The issue surfaced in a Nassau County courtroom in October, when a judge told an attorney for a Muslim defendant that the woman had to remove a niqab, a religious garment that covers most of the face, to verify her identity. 

Long Island is home to an estimated 80,000 Muslims, with dozens of mosques and Islamic centers across Nassau and Suffolk, and it is important for law enforcement officials to understand and respect the growing community’s beliefs, advocates say.

The New York City Police Department and other police departments across the nation — including Yonkers, Dearborn Heights, Michigan, and Long Beach, California — have in recent years adopted policies allowing arrestees to wear religious garments.

Courts at the state and federal level in New York have similar policies regarding religious garments.

Defendants and visitors are permitted to wear hijabs, turbans and other religious headwear in New York courts, according to a spokesman for the New York State Office of Court Administration. “There are no restrictions on religious head coverings at New York State courthouses and proceedings,” said the spokesman, Al Baker.

Religious headwear is also permitted in federal courts in Central Islip and Brooklyn, according to a spokesman for the Eastern District of New York.

Inmates at Suffolk County jails are also permitted to wear hijabs and other religious head coverings, according to Vicki DiStefano, a spokeswoman for Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. They are allowed to wear the garments during the mug shot process as long as their faces are clearly visible, she said.

The federal lawsuit filed by Marowa Fahmy on Jan. 8 alleges Suffolk police violated her First Amendment religious rights by refusing to return her hijab for nine hours, even after she explained her Muslim beliefs require her to keep her head, hair and neck covered while in the company of men outside her immediate family. The complaint also said officers forced Fahmy to partially undress in front of male police officers.

A Suffolk police spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit filed on Fahmy’s behalf by the Council on American-Islamic Relations New York and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel, a Manhattan civil rights law firm.

The lawsuit names the county as the sole defendant and seeks to change what it calls a flawed policy.

Romaine publicly responded to Fahmy’s complaint in mid-January, saying he would review the policy.

“While officer safety is a critical concern in any police-citizen encounter, my administration does not condone any policy which would compromise a person’s religious beliefs or customs,” Romaine said in the statement. “Religious freedom is a cornerstone of our democracy, and I will immediately review our policies and procedures with the Suffolk County Police Department.”

Romaine spokesman Michael Martino later said he could not discuss what, if any, steps had been taken to review the policy with Suffolk police since the announcement was made.

Fahmy attorney Andrew Wilson said he has not been contacted by Romaine’s office or police department officials since Romaine issued his statement.

Burhan Carroll, another Fahmy lawyer and a staff attorney at CAIR-NY, said he, too, has not been contacted by Romaine or his staff, but called the announcement “a positive sign and certainly welcome.”

The attorney for the 37-year-old woman in the Nassau case told the judge that showing her face would violate her religious beliefs, and her identity was eventually verified through other means.

Nassau leaves decisions about head garments to the discretion of the police department and sheriff’s office, County Executive Bruce Blakeman said in a statement to Newsday.

“The Nassau County police and sheriff’s departments have discretion on the legal procedures they may take when making contact with inmates and the public,” Blakeman said. “Our officers are trained to be sensitive to the customs and traditions of every religion and ethnic group in the county and treat everyone with respect and dignity.”

Nassau County should provide police and correction officers with a “standardized, easily drawn bright line” so officers understand detainees’ rights and their own responsibilities, Carroll said.

“There should be a county policy,” agreed Hussain Ahmad, president of the Long Island Muslim Society in East Meadow, who teaches international business at Hofstra University. “There should be a uniform policy on how to handle these matters.”

Nassau police declined to comment when asked if Muslim women are required to remove hijabs while being photographed for mug shots.

Many practicing Muslims believe women should wear full sleeves and cover their hair, heads and necks while in the presence of men outside their immediate families. According to the Fahmy lawsuit, requiring a woman to remove the hijab in the presence of male officers was a “profound defilement of the wearer’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”

 Ahmad said he has offered to connect Islamic scholars with Long Island’s law enforcement agencies to provide insights into his religion.

“Our police departments need to provide intercultural and interreligious training to their officers,” Ahmad said.

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