Youth detention worker says she’s barred from wearing hijab

A Delaware woman has filed federal and state discrimination complaints saying she’s being barred from wearing a hijab at work.

News outlets report 35-year-old Madinah Brown held a news conference Thursday near the New Castle County Detention Center in Wilmington where she works.

Brown’s complaint says she was forced to clock out early several times for wearing a hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women. One of the supervisors even yelled “Now you’re looking like a terrorist,” according to the report filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.  Brown is represented by lawyers from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“This is a clear example of religious discrimination and the state of Delaware has no basis from preventing Madinah from working with her hijab on,” said Zanah Ghalawanji, a staff attorney with the CAIR, which is representing Brown.

The Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families declined to comment on Brown’s complaint. But Cabinet Secretary Josette Manning says a person’s job may require certain actions, such as physically restraining a youth, that makes some religious clothing unsafe. She says the department may make exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

“We must carefully balance our strong support of religious freedom with the need to keep youth and staff safe,” the statement said. “In some instances, a person’s job may require them to do certain actions, such as the physical restraint of a youth, that makes wearing some religious clothing unsafe.”

Brown first applied for a youth rehabilitation counselor position at the detention center in October 2011. Prior to the interview, the complaint said a friend told her she would likely be denied the position if she wore her hijab.

She wore a hijab to her November 2011 interview and was not selected for the position. She also was not given a reason why, according to the complaint.

Brown reapplied for the position. She did not wear her hijab to the February 2012 interview, which had some of the same panelists from the first interview.

This time, she got the job.

“I was just trying to provide for my family,” the mother of three said at a Thursday press conference outside the dentition center.

But in 2014, Brown made “the conscious decision to proudly and freely practice her religious beliefs” and wore her hijab, according to the complaint.

She was reprimanded by a supervisor and was told it was unacceptable to wear a hijab for “safety reason,” the complaint said.

The complaint states Brown provided examples of how they could find a compromise that would allow her to wear her hijab without it being a safety concern.

Stressed by not being able to practice her faith, the complaint said she took a leave of absence in March 2018. She returned to work in July of this year and decided to make another attempt to wear her hijab at work.

“Ms. Brown no longer wished to compromise her sincerely-held religious beliefs, even if it meant risking her employment,” the complaint said.

While Brown wore her hijab without issue in July, the complaint said that on July 19 her supervisor told her she could not work with the head covering. But when she asked that he provide that in a written statement, the supervisor did not.

On July 23, she was forced to clock out after refusing to remove her hijab, according to the complaint. This became the routine, despite her union representatives warning the state agency that it was discriminating against her.

Union representatives even met with the agency’s superintendents on Aug. 8 and were informed that it was unsafe for her to wear the hijab because it could be used to choke her.

The reps told superintendents that by that logic, the lanyards workers at the facility wear could also be used to choke workers. The reps then suggested Brown could wear a “breakaway hijab” to prevent someone from trying to choke her.

“Delaware denied Ms. Brown’s request to wear a breakaway hijab,” according to the complaint.

Soon after, Brown said she realized she’d been demoted and her pay had been cut.

Brown, however, continued going to work. And after she clocked in wearing her hijab she was forced to clock out.

Even after a supervisor yelled, in the presence of other workers on Aug. 28, that she looked like a terrorist, Brown continued to try and work.

On Sept. 11, Brown was given a document with the detention center’s dress code policy, the complaint said. The document provided two options: not wear a hijab or submit a request for policy deviation.

“This came as a shock to Ms. Brown, who had requested to wear her hijab and provided suitable alternatives to her hijab on numerous occasions,” according to the complaint.

Earlier this month, Brown was placed on an attendance improvement plan for 90 days and is no longer being allowed to clock in unless she removed her hijab.

The complaint said there is another worker who wears a hijab who has been subjected to similar issues and at least three Muslim women were forced to resign from Delaware because the state prohibits them from wearing the hijab.

“Delaware recently required another employee to remove her head wrap, despite having worn it for two years without issue,” the complaint said.

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