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For Immediate Release:  
For Further Information Contact:
June 16, 2005

Office of The Attorney General
- Peter C. Harvey, Attorney General
Division on Civil Rights
- J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, Director

 

Lee Moore
609-292-4791

 

AG Harvey Announces Finding of Probable Cause in Case of Muslim Nursing Student;
Fairleigh Dickinson University Accused of Discriminating Based on Religious Attire

TRENTON – Attorney General Peter C. Harvey and the Division on Civil Rights announced today that the State has issued a Finding of Probable Cause against Fairleigh Dickinson University for allegedly discriminating against a Muslim nursing student by requiring that she remove her religious head covering, known as a khimar.

Named as the single Respondent in the Finding of Probable Cause document is Fairleigh Dickinson University of Bergen County. The conduct at issue allegedly took place in July 2004. Former Fairleigh Dickinson student Debra Mason, of Jersey City, alleges that she was told by the school’s Director of Nursing in July 2004 that she must remove her khimar or face failing to complete a three-day clinical rotation required as part of an introductory nursing course.

A Finding of Probable Cause means the State has completed its investigation, and has determined there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable suspicion that the actions of Fairleigh Dickinson violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

“We are one nation that is indivisible by race or religion. Each of us is obliged to respect the beliefs, the dignity, and the customary practices of all religions. It is not only the right thing to do, it is the law,” said Attorney General Harvey. “We will protect the rights of all people to work in an environment that respects reasonable religious practices.”

According to Division on Civil Rights Director J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, the Complainant, Mason, was enrolled in the accelerated Bachelor of Science nursing program at Fairleigh Dickinson in May 2004. She began classes at the university’s Teaneck campus in June 2004.

As part of the curriculum for a course known as Foundations of Nursing, students are required to do a three-day clinical rotation at a local hospital. Mason was assigned to Saint Mary’s Hospital in Passaic.

Mason alleges that, not long after her course of study began, she met with Fairleigh Dickinson’s Director of Nursing, as well as its Administrator of Clinical Affairs and External Relations. During that early-July-2004 meeting, Mason alleges, she was told the hospital would not permit her to wear her khimar while performing patient care.

According to Mason’s account, as outlined in the Finding of Probable Cause document, she removed the khimar as instructed on July 15, 2004, again on July 20, 2004, and again on July 22, 2004 – the final day of her clinical rotation. During that last day of clinical, Mason told investigators, she went to her nursing professor and complained that she felt “completely uncomfortable ... naked” in not wearing her khimar.

Mason contends that she was urged to speak again with Fairleigh Dickinson’s Director of Nursing. Afterward, Mason alleges, she also spoke with Saint Mary’s hospital officials, and they denied having any hard-and-fast policy that prohibited the wearing of a khimar. Subsequently, a Saint Mary’s official told a Division on Civil Rights investigator the same thing, noting that there is already an employee working in the hospital’s radiology section who wears a khimar, according to the Finding of Probable Cause document.

“It is important to remember that, at this stage, we are talking about allegations,” said Director Vespa-Papaleo. “But it appears from Ms. Mason’s version of events – which the Division’s own investigation has found evidence to support – that there was no genuine attempt by the nursing faculty and administration at Fairliegh Dickinson to work with Ms. Mason. It is also noteworthy that, on more than one occasion, university representatives apparently advised Ms. Mason that she must remove her khimar due to Saint Mary’s Hospital policy, yet hospital officials themselves told our investigators that no such policy existed.”

Citing her belief that her religious head covering would continue to be an issue of contention in clinical rotations scheduled for the Fall 2004 semester, Mason withdrew from Fairleigh Dickinson’s nursing program on July 28, 2004, according to the Finding of Probable Cause document.

Now that a Finding of Probable Cause has been issued, the case moves into a phase known as Conciliation, a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in which the parties make a final attempt to resolve the matter.

If it is not resolved at Conciliation, the matter will be referred to the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law, where an Administrative Law judge will hold a formal hearing or non-jury trial on the merits of the case, and issue an Initial Decision.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) provides that each Respondent found to have committed a violation is subject to a penalty of up to $10,000, provided he or she has not been convicted of a previous violation within the past five years. Respondents who have violated the LAD within the past five years are subject to a penalty of up to $25,000, while those who have been convicted of two or more violations within the past seven years are subject to a penalty of up to $50,000.

The Division on Civil Rights is responsible for enforcing the LAD and the Family Leave Act. Specifically, the Division investigates allegations of discrimination in employment, housing, places of public accommodation and credit. Its offices are located in Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton. Further information about the Division is available on its Web site at www.NJCivilRights.org

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