A Muslim school in Wilmington has sued the city, alleging a “pattern of discriminatory treatment” after children were asked to leave a public pool for wearing cotton clothing.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the Delaware Court of Chancery, claimed “ongoing discrimination” by municipal employees at the Foster M. Brown Community Pool, and faulted Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki and the city’s parks and recreation director for enforcing a policy that allegedly singled out Muslim students for dressing according to their religious beliefs.
According to the complaint, seven children between the ages of 5 and 12 were harassed throughout the summer swimming season at the pool, which is located just 50 yards from the Darul Amaanah Academy summer camp. The filing details seven instances in which the pool’s manager, Glenda Pinkett, and members of the staff confronted the children and academy principal Tahsiyn Ismaa’eel over what the children were wearing.
“For years, these children have swum at the city’s public pools, including Foster Brown, without issue,” attorneys from Muslim Advocates wrote in the 43-page complaint. “But in the 2018 summer season, without justification, defendants and their employees have denied these children access to the pools and subjected them to discriminatory and harassing conduct, simply on account of the Darul Amaanah children’s efforts to adhere to their religious beliefs.”
According to the filing, Pinkett, who is not named in the lawsuit, first confronted the group on June 25 for wearing leggings, shirts and headscarves, used to cover parts of their bodies while in public. The complaint said Pinkett referred to the children as “the Muslims” when talking to other patrons and said they would have to leave while wearing “clothes like that.”
It wasn’t until after the second incident on June 28 that Ismaa’eel said she was informed that Pinkett and Kevin F. Kelley, the city’s parks and recreation director, were enforcing a city policy prohibiting cotton clothes because the fabric can clog pool filtration systems.
However, city officials have since acknowledged that Wilmington does not have a written ”no cotton” policy in place, and the complaint alleged the Darul Amaanah children were targeted over other pool-goers, who often wear T-shirts, tank tops and cutoff jeans, rather than more traditional swimwear.
Purzycki initially defended the “no cotton” policy July 14 in a statement that cited formal regulations requiring swimmers to wear “proper swimming attire.” However, Purzycki backtracked later that day and issued an apology saying the city had used poor judgment in handling the situation.
“We should be held accountable for what happened and how poorly we assessed this incident,” Purzycki said. “I apologize to the children who were directed to leave a city pool because of the religious-required clothing they were wearing.”
A spokesman for Purzycki said Wednesday that the mayor was reviewing the complaint but declined further comment on the lawsuit. The city has said that it launched an investigation into the incidents and would be revisiting its policies before next summer, the filing said.
The lawsuit claimed the city has failed to address the alleged mistreatment, and that Purzycki and Kelley have provided “shifting and plainly pretextual explanations” for the “no cotton” policy.
According to the complaint, the alleged instances at Foster Brown continued through July 16, when the campers stopped attending the pool for fear of “further harassment and discrimination against them.” Meanwhile, the filing said, some girls from the group have stopped wearing their headscarves while swimming at other pools, so that “they could go in the pool.”
The suit, which alleged violations of the state and U.S. constitutions, seeks money damages, as well as an order extending Wilmington’s 2019 pool season to compensate the Darul Amaanah children for time lost in the pool this summer.
“The Darul Amaanah children should not be forced to choose between complying with their religious beliefs and swimming with their friends. And no child should be made to feel shame for his or her religious beliefs,” the complaint said.
“In short, defendants’ discriminatory conduct has deprived the children at Darul Amaanah of access to the pool for an entire summer. These children deserve better and to be made whole.”
The plaintiffs are represented by Johnathan Smith, Juvaria Khan and Nimra Azmi of Muslim Advocates in Washington, D.C., and Cliff C. Gardner, Matthew P. Majarian, Bonnie W. David, Kaitlin E. Maloney and Haley S. Stern of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Wilmington.
An online docket-tracking service did not list counsel for the city.
The case is captioned Darul Amaanah Academy v. City of Wilmington.