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Muslim bus driver’s civil rights case going to trial –– after her death

Published: April 5, 2014

Publication: NY Post

By Rebecca Harshbarger

The family of a Muslim bus driver who battled the MTA for years for the right to wear a head scarf at work won a major legal victory — a year after her death — when a federal judge ruled her civil rights were violated.

Stephanie Lewis started driving in 1989, and wore a scarf called a khimar, that matched her blue uniform.

“People loved her on Nostrand Avenue, where she would drive,” said her mom, Willia Mae Gandy, 82.

But when Lewis came back from a medical leave in 2003, her bosses asked her to cover the scarf with a baseball cap, but she refused and was transferred to a bus depot where she was assigned to do janitorial work, according to court papers.

“They were afraid people would be afraid of her because she’s Muslim,” said her lawyer, Omar Mohammedi. “It’s a disgrace.”

At the garage, she allegedly was told by a dispatcher to “work at Wendy’s’’ because they wouldn’t “mind that rag” on her head.

Lewis filed a grievance against a depot supervisor in in 2003 for “humiliation and retaliation,” and was seriously injured later that year after she tripped over a fare box hose while cleaning.

She asked for a change in jobs, and supervisors reclassified her as a station agent — but told her she could only wear a head scarf if she put an MTA logo on the part covering her forehead, according to the papers say.

Lewis refused, since her head had to touch the ground during prayers and she wanted the logo put on her shoulder.

She lost her job in 2005 after her bosses said she was medically unqualified and disobeyed rules. She lost her benefits as well, and died last year after a struggle with diabetes that led to her legs being amputated.

“She could not buy insulin and could not treat herself,” said Mohammedi.

The MTA was eventually hit with class-action lawsuits from its Muslim and Sikh workers, as well as from the Department of Justice.

After a bitter legal battle, it agreed in 2012 to let workers wear blue head coverings in public, and paid almost $185,000 to eight former or current workers.

Before Lewis died, she refused the money the MTA offered her to settle because “she would rather die dignified than have to sacrifice her religion freedoms and beliefs,” Mohammedi said.

Federal Judge Sandra Townes on Thursday ruled the case can go forward. Any money Lewis wins will go to her husband.

Arthur Schwartz, a lawyer for the Transport Workers Union, said of the MTA, “they penalized Stephanie for standing up for religious freedom.’’

The MTA said it’s reviewing the decision.

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