Muslim Woman Not Allowed to Wear Khimar (Headscarf) at Work; Sues NYC Transit Authority for Religious Discrimination

On September 30, 2014, the District Court for Eastern New York denied summary judgment to defendant New York City Transit Authority (“NYCTA”) in the case Muhammad v. New York City Transit Authority. NYCTA allegedly demanded that Muhammad either remove or her khimar or else wear a different hat over it, then took a series of adverse employment actions against her–including an involuntary transfer to a bus depot–when she refused.

Plaintiff Gladys Muhammed wore her khimar to work without incident for over seven months after she was hired in November, 2001. Then in July 2002, her manager met with her and told her that she must either remove her khimar or wear a Transit Authority issued baseball cap over it. After that meeting she continued to operate a bus, wearing her khimar each day, until November 2003, when she received a violation for failing to comply with the NYCTA’s newly-enacted policy forbidding operators from wearing non-NYCTA-issued headwear.

Muhammad explained to her Superintendent that her religious beliefs did not permit her to remove or cover her khimar, at which time he demanded that she prove the sincerity of her religious beliefs. She responded by giving him a letter from the Minister of her Mosque explaining that as an active member of the mosque she was required to wear a “modest head covering.” Following these meetings with the Superintendent, Ms. Muhammad was taken out of “passenger service” and assigned to clean buses at a depot while training to become a “shifter,” a worker who moves empty buses back and forth within the bus depot.

This transfer of jobs was an adverse action in several ways: the work was far more strenuous than driving a bus, the work environment was a building full of exhaust fumes, and as a shifter she worked a highly coveted shift that would normally be given to someone with higher seniority, causing her to be stigmatized by her colleagues.

The first element of a prima facie claim of religious discrimination is that the claimant has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement. The NYCTA claimed that Muhammad’s could not have had such bona fide belief, since they were able to find evidence that Muslim women sometimes chose not to wear a Khimar. The Court made light of this argument, noting that the NYCTA “apparently disagrees with Muhammad and her Minister’s interpretation of the Quran, arguing that Muhammad should have simply removed her headscarf because, ‘generally speaking…some Muslim women do, and some do not [wear headscarves]’.” By arguing that, since some Muslim women do not wear headscarves, as a Muslim woman Muhammad must not believe she is required to wear her khimar, the Defendant “…is, in effect, arguing that all Muslim women subscribe to the same interpretations of Islam.” In any case, the Court concluded, the important question of whether Muhammad’s regious belief was sincere would be a question for a fact-finder and not for a court considering a summary judgment motion.

Once a prima facie claim is made, the Court must consider whether the employer had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse actions it took against the employee; in the absence of such a reason, the Court has reason to conclude that the employer’s action was intentionally discriminatory. In this case, the Court found that the NYCTA’s “facially neutral” policy–that no one could wear religious headwear–was arguably discriminatory due to its disparate negative impact on Muslim women. Plaintiffs pointed out that, of the 64 documented violations of the headwear policy, five Muslim employees were transferred out of passenger service for violating the policy, while zero employees who violated the policy for secular reasons were transferred. “100% of those with religious objections were transferred, while 0% of those with non-religious objections were transferred.”

Ms. Muhammad was ultimately terminated as a result of this issue in the Fall of 2005, so if successful she seems poised to recover a good amount of backpay in addition to whatever other damages she is awarded.

If you believe your employer has taken adverse action against you because of your religious belief, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.