Prison officials can ban employees from wearing religious headscarves out of concerns they pose a safety risk, a U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia ruled Monday in a split 2-1 decision.
Prison officials have legitimate concerns the headscarves can hide drugs or other contraband, or be used by an inmate to strangle someone, the majority said.
The ruling dismisses a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of three Muslim women employed at the Delaware County Prison in suburban Thornton. The EEOC had said they were being forced to compromise their religious beliefs to keep their jobs.
An EEOC spokeswoman said the agency was disappointed by the decision and was reviewing its options.
Prison officials had argued that baseball hats, headscarves and other head coverings make it difficult to identify people and can be used to hide drugs and other contraband. Lawyer Walter F. Kawalec III, who argued the case for the Geo Group, did not immediately return a call for comment.
In his dissent, Justice A. Wallace Tashima, a senior judge the 9th U.S. Circuit, said the Geo Group had not been made to prove that the use of headscarves by employees posed an undue burden.
In a related case, the U.S. 3rd Circuit ruled last year that Philadelphia police could likewise bar a female officer from wearing a headscarf under her police hat.
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