New York City to pay $17.5M settlement to Muslim arrestees forced to remove hijabs News
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New York City to pay $17.5M settlement to Muslim arrestees forced to remove hijabs

New York City settled a class-action lawsuit on Thursday that was brought by two Muslim women against the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) policy for removing their head coverings for arrest photos.  The women filed a motion on Friday with presiding Judge Analisa Torres of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, asking her to approve the settlement.

In the $17.5 million settlement agreement, though city did not admit to any wrongdoing, the NYPD changed its policy so that arrestees are no longer required to remove their head coverings. Those previously impacted by the policy will receive money damages to compensate for having to remove their head covering before the policy change. Depending on how many eligible people sign up, affected individuals could receive between $7,824 and $13,125 “for each instance of removal,” the plaintiffs said.

The two plaintiffs brought the case in March 2018 on behalf of thousands of New Yorkers who had their religious head covering removed by the NYPD for their arrest photos. The plaintiffs claimed that the police had violated 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1 of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act because removing their hijabs went against their religious commitments. They also claimed violations of their right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment of the US Constitution and Article I, Section 3 of the New York State Constitution.

Albert Fox Cahn of Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, celebrated the settlement:

This is a milestone for New Yorkers’ privacy and religious rights. The NYPD should never have stripped these religious New Yorkers of their head coverings and dignity….Money can’t fully undo this trauma, but it sends a powerful message that the NYPD can’t violate New Yorkers’ First Amendment rights without paying a price.

Nick Paolucci, spokesman for the New York Law Department, also welcomed the settlement, saying that it is “in the best interest of all parties” because it “carefully balances the [NYPD’s] respect for firmly held religious beliefs with the important law enforcement need to take arrest photos.”

The settlement now awaits Torres’s approval. Under Rule 23(e)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a federal judge presiding over a class action must generally approve a settlement agreement before it goes into effect. That step ensures that the settlement is fair to everyone who have not had their say in court, but who would still be bound by the agreement and could no longer sue the NYPD on their own.

The settlement comes at a time of increasing anti-Muslim bias in the US. A recent report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that complaints of anti-Muslim bias in the US reached a record high in 2023. The civil rights group received 8,061 complaints of anti-Muslim incidents last year, marking the highest number of complaints reported in the group’s 30-year history.