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NEW YORK--A federal appeals court has reinstated First Amendment claims made by two corrections officers who say they were singled out for tax-related disciplinary action because they are members of a religious sect.
According to Tuesday's decision by a panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in Ntchwaidumela Bey and Ajama Jabari Bey vs. City of New York, 21 Department of Corrections officers were terminated on the recommendation of the department's inspector general for filing false tax documents. All professed to be members of the Moorish-American faith or, in one case, falsely identified as a member of that faith, according to the ruling.
The plaintiffs claimed the Department of Corrections singled them out for "selective enforcement of discipline" because of their faith and, therefore, discriminated against them on the basis of race or religion.
The Moorish Nation is a black separatist group that rejects the U.S. Constitution, according to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group.
A district court found that the plaintiffs were not "similarly situated" to nondisciplined DOC employees and granted New York summary judgment dismissing the charges. But in a unanimous decision, the three-judge federal appeals court panel disagreed and reinstated the claims.
Other employees "who did not claim to be Moors and were not subject to the same discipline as the group of 21, submitted documents making similar claims," the panel wrote. "Defendants argue that the claims made by non-Moorish employees may be distinguished from the claims made by the Moors on the ground that the non-Moors claimed only to be immune from the laws of the United States, while the Moors claimed to be immune from the laws of United States and New York alike."
"A jury might reasonably find the distinction to be trivial or illusory, and might therefore find the disciplined Moorish employees to be similarly situated to a number of nondisciplined employees," the appeals panel said. "A jury might reasonably find that the fine distinction asserted by defendants is a mere pretext for an animus against the Moors, on the basis of their professed faith."
Mordecai Newman, senior counsel, appeals division, with the city's law department, said in a statement that he is confident "the evidence at trial will establish that the plaintiffs were terminated based on valid security concerns and without improper regard to their religious affiliation."