A practicing Muslim woman who says her former employer ordered her to remove a religious head covering is alleging in a federal civil rights lawsuit that the Hanover health facility made her choose between her job and her faith.
Lawyers with the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed the complaint in Eastern District Court of Virginia last month on behalf of Keseanda Brooks, who worked at Hanover Health & Rehabilitation Center in Mechanicsville in January 2017, when the incident occurred.
Brooks alleges managers at Hanover Health, owned by Roanoke-based Medical Facilities of America, told her they were concerned about safety implications stemming from her choice to wear a hijab, a cloth head covering worn by some Muslim women.
Brooks said in court filings she was told then that the garment could be grabbed or pulled — and that she would have to remove her hijab or be fired.
“This wasn’t a fashion statement,” Ahmed Mohamed, a lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations who represents Brooks, said in an interview. “No employer should force any female to remove any article of clothing, especially religious clothing.”
Medical Facilities of America, which has more than 40 locations in Virginia and North Carolina, disputed Brooks’ allegations in a statement saying she was later told she could wear the garment.
“Hanover Health & Rehabilitation Center is committed to respecting the religious and cultural differences among our employees and residents,” the statement reads. “When Ms. Brooks’ concerns were brought to our attention, we quickly contacted her and advised that she was welcome to wear her hijab in the workplace. It was our understanding that she would continue to work at our facility.”
Mohamed responded: “If she was welcome to come back, they wouldn’t have forced her to take off her hijab and they wouldn’t have fired her.”
He said Brooks contacted CAIR, a 24-year-old civil rights organization dedicated to battling religious discrimination, shortly after she was fired.
The decision came after Brooks, who had been employed as a certified nursing assistant at the facility for about 10 months, was summoned to a meeting with Hanover Health’s director of nursing and registered nurse unit manager on Jan. 4, 2017, the lawsuit states.
She had converted to Islam and started wearing the hijab five months earlier, which she continues to do when in the presence of men who are not members of her immediate family.
Brooks said she tried to work with the supervisors to find a solution — maybe pulling the head covering more tightly around her head and neck — but was rebuffed and fired for refusing to comply, the lawsuit states.
Brooks initially took her concerns to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her complaint was dismissed and she was given a notice of her right to sue. A copy of the dismissal was not immediately available Thursday.
Mohamed said the notice is not a determination of whether someone has a legitimate claim and cannot be used to argue the case in federal court.
“This is part of a national pattern that goes a little bit beyond Virginia,” Mohamed said. “I think that individuals are becoming emboldened to some degree to act on some of the prejudices they are holding.”
A 2018 civil rights report from CAIR states there was a 17 percent increase in anti-Muslim bias incidents nationwide in 2017, and a 15 percent increase in hate crimes targeting American Muslims.
Brooks is seeking a jury trial, compensation for back pay, punitive damages and legal fees, among other requests, from Medical Facilities of America, which she alleges violated two aspects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on sex, race, color, national origin and religion.
Brooks now works at another health and rehabilitation center in the Richmond area as a certified nursing assistant, where she is allowed to wear her hijab.