Muslim cab driver from the U.S. fired over religious dress

Raja Naeem leaving the Carnahan Courthouse in St.Louis.

A Muslim taxi driver who was allegedly fired for his Islamic dress code is appealing the decision in a St. Louis court.

Raja Awais Naeem says he’s been arrested twice, issued more than $800 in citations and had his cabdriver’s license revoked because he insists on going to work with an outwardly Muslim attire.

The Metropolitan Taxicab Commission, which licenses drivers in the St. Louis region, requires them to wear black pants and a white, button-down shirt.

After a court ruling last year, the commission offered what it insists is a compromise that accommodates Naeem’s beliefs:

The commission told Naeem he can wear a kurta, the loose-fitting clothing worn on the torso, but it must be white and cannot go below his thighs. His pants, or shalwar, should be black. He is allowed to wear the kufi, a wrapped garment for his head.

The commission says the dress code is for safety reasons, ensuring the public can easily identify those who are licensed drivers.

But Naeem, a father of four from St. Louis who has been driving a taxi since 2001, believes the parameters still violate his freedom of religious expression. That was the issue before a St. Louis circuit judge earlier this month.

“Where does the MTC get off micromanaging how someone’s religious dress should be?” asked his attorney, Drew Baebler, prior to the hearing.

Neil Bruntrager, the lawyer representing the commission, responded later, “We’re trying to work with them, but they have to work with us, too.”

Naeem has continued to wear his traditional garb as he chooses, and as a result, has racked up 17 citations from the commission in the past year. His license was suspended as a result in December 2013, although Circuit Judge Robert Dierker has stayed that suspension while he considers the case.

Baebler is seeking a court order that would prevent the commission from issuing any more citations to Naeem or retaliating in any other way. Dierker will issue a ruling later based on Monday’s hearing.

In 2004, after a group of independent cabdrivers sued, the Missouri Supreme Court prohibited the commission from enforcing its dress code when it is in conflict with religious beliefs.

Baebler said the commission was supposed to set up a process by which drivers could apply for variances. It did not, he said, and went on to issue citations to Naeem. He also was arrested on two occasions for the dress, he said, including in December 2012 at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Baebler said it was only last year that the commission offered the option of a variance, when reminded by an appellate judge who dismissed some of Naeem’s citations.

Bruntrager said the commission was trying to meet Naeem’s request and offer a solution when it consulted a local imam on what types of dress would be religiously appropriate.

Bruntrager also pointed out that Naeem never specified in his application for a variance that it was important that the clothing color match — which the lawyer said was the only thing for which Naeem was cited.

“Everything that has been asked for on the religious end was granted,” Bruntrager told the judge. “He got everything he wanted, but that wasn’t enough.”

Baebler said his client viewed the contact with the imam as further harassment. And the commission’s proposed solution, he said, isn’t one at all because most kurtas extend beyond the thighs, and they are sold in matching colors with the shalwar.

Plus, he said, Naeem wears the matching clothes to closely follow the model of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Baebler also pointed to the wording on several of the citations, including one that fined Naeem for “foreign country religious dress.”

“This is what they’ve written on their own tickets,” he said. “So to say this is just about color, it’s just not true.”

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