A lawsuit alleges Suffolk police violated the First Amendment religious rights of...

A lawsuit alleges Suffolk police violated the First Amendment religious rights of an East Setauket woman by forcing her to remove her hijab and other clothing in front of male officers following a 2022 arrest. Credit: Newsday/John Keating

The Suffolk County Police Department violated the First Amendment religious rights of an East Setauket woman by forcing her to remove her hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women, and other clothing in front of male officers following a 2022 arrest, a federal lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit argues that police refused to return the hijab to Marowa Fahmy, a practicing Muslim, for nine hours, although she explained her religious beliefs require her to cover her head, neck and hair while in the company of men outside her immediate family. The complaint also says officers forced Fahmy to partially undress in front of male officers.

“No woman should go through what Ms. Fahmy went through, regardless of their religion,” said Burhan Carroll, a staff attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations-New York and one of Fahmy’s attorneys.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 8 in the Eastern District of New York, names Suffolk County as the defendant. The officers who allegedly violated Fahmy’s rights are not identified.

Representatives of the county and the police department declined to discuss the lawsuit, saying they could not comment on pending litigation.

Andrew Wilson, another attorney for Fahmy, said the lawsuit is an attempt to correct what he called Suffolk’s flawed policy regarding head garments. Department policy says people who wear head coverings due to religious beliefs should be allowed to wear them while in custody unless there is a compelling safety concern, according to the lawsuit. But the policy also allows officers to temporarily remove head garments while photographing people in custody, which Wilson and Carroll said violates the First Amendment religious protections.

“There are a variety of things that can be done to balance the concerns of law enforcement while protecting religious rights,” said Wilson, of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel, a Manhattan-based law firm.

The policy also requires officers to notify a supervisor when a request for a religious accommodation is denied. The officers who refused to return Fahmy’s hijab did not notify their supervisor, which Wilson said demonstrates that they were not properly trained, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says removing the hijab in the presence of male officers was a “profound defilement of the wearer's sincerely held religious beliefs and a violation of her religious practice. Requiring a Muslim woman to remove her hijab in public is akin to demanding that a secular person strip naked in front of strangers.”

Fahmy was arrested on Oct. 9, 2022, after her teenage son filed a false domestic complaint against her, according to the lawsuit. Responding officers took Fahmy to the Sixth Precinct in Coram, and then she was taken to a hospital after complaining about heart and stomach pain. She was provided medication at the hospital and returned to the Sixth Precinct.

According to the lawsuit, a female officer searched Fahmy while a male officer watched. Fahmy cried after she was forced to remove her hijab.

A female officer later instructed Fahmy to remove her clothes in front of a male officer, the lawsuit alleges. Fahmy was forced to remove her jacket and dress, leaving her in pants and a sleeveless, see-through shirt. She was later taken to a courthouse, according to the lawsuit, and forced to walk down a hallway without her hijab in front of seven or eight men, court papers say.

“Finally, after nine hours of violating Ms. Fahmy’s religious rights, SCPD officers returned her hijab,” the lawsuit says.

Fahmy’s attorneys said she was never charged with a crime as a result of the complaint by her son.

Wilson and Carroll said they hope the lawsuit forces Suffolk police to change their policy on head coverings. The NYPD changed its policy in 2020 to allow detainees to retain religious head coverings.

Police departments across the nation, including Yonkers, Dearborn Heights, Michigan, and Long Beach, California, also have adopted policies allowing arrestees to wear head coverings.

“Each of these examples reflects a growing national consensus that there is no basis to require the removal of religious head coverings for official government photographs,” court papers say.

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