by Sam Levin
In December of last year, Raja Naeem, a local Muslim taxi driver, made headlines when he alleged in a lawsuit that the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission and other officials had repeatedly harassed him and eventually arrested him simply because he wanted to wear his religious garb.
That suit is moving forward, but since it was filed, Naeem and his attorneys say they have received multiple written assurances -- documents on view below -- that he is allowed to wear the religious attire in question.
But the retaliation, they say, has continued.
"This is ongoing harassment that has just not stopped," Drew Baebler, Naeem's attorney, tells Daily RFT. "He continues to wear his Muslim dress even though it comes at a price."
Officials at the commission, however, tell a different story.
"He absolutely has every right in the world to practice his religion," Ronald Klein, director of the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission, tells Daily RFT. "Everybody does."
What's the discrepancy?
At question is his kufi, which is a hat, as well as his kurta, a traditional shirt. At the MTC, cab drivers have a required uniform of a white button down shirt and black trousers.
Naeem and his attorneys say that he has been repeatedly harassed by officials around Lambert airport, culminating in a dramatic arrest last year. Since then, he's filed suit against the city and the MTC.
"He has been pulled over and given tickets...no less than ten times," Baebler says.
But in recent weeks, there have been two significant developments in his ongoing dispute.
First, Naeem received a response from Klein to his official "alternative attire" request.
That March 15 letter, on view below, says:
The Metropolitan Taxicab Commission has determined that it is reasonable to allow alternative attire as follow:
You may wear a kurta, not to exceed thigh length. Any shirt worn, regardless of length, should be white. Any slacks or trousers should be black. The kufi is allowable.
Of note, Klein also says in the letter that he directly met with Naeem's imam with the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis "in order to discuss acceptable dress codes."
Naeem, who had refused to give the MTC his imam's name, was not pleased with this and saw this as an invasion of his privacy and a further form of harassment.
"It made him look, to his religious leader, like they didn't trust him," Baebler says of the MTC meeting with his imam. "He didn't want his religious leader to be harassed, too."
Klein argues that Naeem wasn't being cooperative and that he was just trying to get information so that they could hash out a reasonable attire compromise.
"We are trying to be as fair as we can with him," Klein tells us. "We are surely not trying to discriminate."
Continue for more on Raja Naeem's dispute and full documents in this case.
Then on April 1, Ronnie White, an appellate hearing officer with the MTC, issued a decision regarding one of Naeem's summons, saying that the alleged "uniform violations must be reversed," because there was not a fair process in place for him to make his request:
Taxicab drivers such as Naeem should have been granted the opportunity to request reasonable accommodation from the uniform requirements through certification of religious purpose.... In this case, the record shows that Naeem claimed a religious exemption from the outset; yet he was unable to file for a certification since the MTC did not have a means for him to do so.
Despite both of these decsions, Naeem says the harassment has continued; he even says he was stopped and ticketed this week.
Klein argues that White's decision was narrow and that the MTC has in fact given Naeem a clear "variance" to uniform code that officials think is a reasonable compromise -- but one that Naeem is still violating. For instance, despite his letter specifying the need for a white shirt, Naeem recently showed up in a tan one, Klein says.
"We've granted him an exemption...but it has to be white and black," Klein says, adding, "We do that so taxi drivers are regularly recognized."
He continues, "I fully support him in his religious beliefs... This is a compromise.... All we are trying to do is give him what he asked for."
To Baebler, though, it's clear that the MTC is retaliating against Naeem for making a fuss.
"This is belittling to him," he says. "And the Missouri constitution says...you have a right to practice your faith."
Here's the full letter from Klein in response to Naeem's request.
Here's Ronnie White's decision.
And here's the formal complaint.