Muslim officers sue over beard suspensions, are reinstated

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Two Muslim correctional officers in New York were reinstated Tuesday after being suspended for refusing to shave their beards because of religious reasons, the state prisons agency said.

It came a day after Brian Sughrim and David Feliciano, correctional officers at Fishkill prison in Dutchess County, filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

The lawsuit, which argued the agency discriminated against the two men, is the “sole reason that they’re getting their jobs back,” said their attorney, Joshua Moskovitz.

The agency did not comment on what role the lawsuit might have played in the officers’ reinstatement.

It seems clear, Moskovitz said, that religious intolerance was at the heart of the suspensions. The litigation will proceed, he said.

The employees will receive full back pay, prisons agency spokesman Thomas Mailey said in an emailed statement. The agency, he wrote, will be “reviewing its rules regarding facial hair immediately in light of the new law.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation this month banning employment discrimination because of religious attire or facial hair.

According to the lawsuit, a prison official acknowledged the new law to Sughrim, but the agency suspended him and Feliciano this month anyway.

The two men are long-time department employees and the agency years ago gave them “medical accommodations” to wear beards due to a skin condition, according to the lawsuit.

Earlier this year, the department asked the two men for new documentation of their medical conditions and decided not to continue the medical accommodation.

The suit says the men also put in requests for religious accommodation, but those were rejected by the agency.

According to the lawsuit, the agency argued all security staff should be “clean-shaven because they all must be able to wear respirators in case of an emergency or other staffing need.”

Yet, the department has allowed correctional officers to have facial hair for secular reasons, the suit argues.

Feliciano, in a statement provided by his attorney, said the reinstatement “was a small victory for Muslims worldwide.”

Sughrim, in a statement, described it as a “first victory.”

“DOCCS realized this was wrong from the start,” Sughrim said in a statement provided by his attorney. “It was clear we were being harassed because of our religion, and our constitutional rights were blatantly violated.”