ALBANY — More correction officers are accusing New York’s prison agency of discriminating when it comes to religious beards.
A federal judge last week barred the state prison department from taking any “adverse action” against correctional officers who have a beard or are seeking an accommodation to have a beard for religious reasons.
The order is tied to a federal lawsuit filed in August. The litigation argues that the prison agency discriminated against two Muslim officers, Brian Sughrim and David Feliciano, who were suspended after refusing the shave their religious beards.
Shortly after the lawsuit’s filing, the agency reinstated the two officers and said it would review its rules “regarding facial hair immediately in light of the new law.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation earlier this year banning employment discrimination because of religious attire or facial hair.
The state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision declined Monday to comment on the judge’s order. The order will prevent the agency from retaliating or harassing employees who have a religious accommodation for facial hair or have applied for one, said attorney Joshua Moskovitz, who represents several correction officers who have claimed discrimination.
Yet since the two Muslim officers were reinstated, other correction officers say they faced discrimination over their religious beards, according to court filings.
Corrections officer Roland Sofo, who believes in the traditional Norse Pagan religion Asatru, said in a court filing that maintaining a beard is an important practice to his religious beliefs.
Sofo, who works at a prison in Cayuga County, said he sought a religious accommodation last month, but the agency denied the request and said having a beard was a “personal preference,” according to his court filling.
A prison official then directed him to shave, according to the court document, and implied to Sofo that he’d be suspended if he refused.
“Before and after that lawsuit was filed, many officers at Cayuga C.F. had and continue to have beards for non-religious reasons,” he said in a signed declaration. “To my knowledge, none of those officers has faced consequences for not shaving.”
A second corrections officer, Khaldoun Alshamiri, said he is Muslim and has a beard based on his religious beliefs.
In a signed declaration, Alshamiri said he submitted an accommodation request to grow facial hair in September but has not received a response. Despite that, Alshamiri said a prison official told him to shave and “was writing me up for disobeying a direct order” after he refused.
Later, a sergeant told him “Albany said I had to be allowed to work until my request for an accommodation was decided,” according to the declaration.