Discrimination or safety issue? Del. youth detention counselor can’t wear hijab to work

Madinah Brown says Delaware youth rehabilitation officials discriminated against her. State officials counter that wearing hijab at work puts her at risk.

Listen 0:52
Madinah Brown has filed federal and state discrimination complaints for the right to wear her hijab to work. The detention center policy says attire should not “pose unnecessary safety risks.” (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Madinah Brown has filed federal and state discrimination complaints for the right to wear her hijab to work. The detention center policy says attire should not “pose unnecessary safety risks.” (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

A Muslim youth rehabilitation counselor at Delaware’s New Castle County Detention Center wants to wear her hijab to work.

The state says it’s unsafe and against the dress code.

Now the counselor has filed federal and state discrimination complaints.

The employee, 35-year-old Madinah Brown, joined the state Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services in 2012. At a news conference outside the facility near Wilmington on Thursday, Brown said that she wore her Islamic headscarf to work for a few days in July before being told it violated policy.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Since then, she has reported to work five nights a week at 11 p.m. for her overnight shift. She clocks in, but moments later is sent home because she wears the hijab. 

One night, she said, there was a confrontation that unsettled her.

“I was coming into the building and the door was not able to open, and it needed a key to unlock it,’’ Brown said. “And I yelled at our admissions desk to open it, and he came up to me and he said, ‘Come on, you sound like a terrorist.’ ”

Brown’s complaint says she was first prevented from wearing the hijab in 2014. She filed a grievance but eventually acquiesced. But this year, Brown decided that “she no longer wished to compromise her sincerely held religious beliefs, even if it meant risking her employment,’’ the complaint says.

The five-page dress code does not specifically prohibit hijabs, but the first paragraph says that “attire should not impede movement or pose unnecessary risks.’’

Officials have suggested that Brown should come up with a detachable hijab or a safe alternative in the event one of the youths in custody tries to hurt her and choke her with the cloth. 

But Brown said her hijab is detachable. And besides, she added, she was hurt without wearing one during an altercation. The young people in the detention center are awaiting trial on charges that often involve violence.

Brown said that since she was prohibited from working in a hijab, another Muslim employee who wears headgear also has been prevented from doing so.

“I feel like if I don’t do this right now and if I don’t stand up for myself and other Muslims, I feel this will continue,’’ she said.

Brown has not been disciplined and said she continues to receive a paycheck of a few dollars every two weeks to account for her time at the center before being sent home.

She is being represented by lawyers for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who joined her Thursday outside the detention center. The complaints also were filed on Thursday, with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Philadelphia and the Delaware Department of Labor.

Zanah Ghalawanji, one of her lawyers, said Brown is seeking a discrimination finding, as well as a change of policy to accommodate Muslim employees, lost wages and benefits, and an order that the department managers undergo sensitivity training.

Josette Manning heads Delaware’s Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, which runs the detention center.

Manning said she could not discuss Brown’s complaint because it’s a personnel issue, but she said that when an employee requests an exception to a policy based on religious beliefs, “we review the issue and make exceptions to policies on a case-by-case basis, making an accommodation whenever possible.”

But, Manning added, “we must carefully balance our strong support of religious freedom with the need to keep youth and staff safe. In some instances, a person’s job may require them to do certain actions, such as the physical restraint of a youth, that makes wearing some religious clothing unsafe.”

In such cases, her office “would entertain alternative or modified clothing, as long as the safety risks are mitigated … to reach a mutually agreeable and safe compromise.”

Manning also stressed that her department is diverse and inclusive.

“Specific to Islam, we have provided classes, items such as Qurans, kufis and prayer rugs, and the guidance of an imam from the Islamic Society,’’ she said. “This is not a department aiming to stifle religious freedoms.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal