By KEN LEISER
c. 2011 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS (RNS) Taxi driver Nabeel Langrial was chatting with another cabbie last summer when an enforcement agent for the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission stopped to tell him his hat did not conform to the driver dress code.
Langrial, a 23-year-old Muslim, told the officer the reddish-brown cap — called a kufi — had religious meaning. Still, the agent wrote him a ticket for the dress code violation. The agent also wrote him up for not displaying a taxi license, for refusing to cooperate and for returning a cab to service without a reinspection.
“It was not constitutional at all,” said Langrial, a part-time driver for Harris Cab Co.
Even now, 10 months later, Langrial still views the incident as a violation of his religious freedom. Even though the kufi ticket ultimately was downgraded to a warning, he still served a one-day suspension earlier this year for not having his cab reinspected after an officer took it out of service that day.
Langrial, who was born in Pakistan, wants the taxicab commission to return the $100 in court costs and reimburse him for the pay he lost while his cab was out of service in July and while he served his suspension in January.
Officials at the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission defend their actions and added that they do not intend to entertain any further appeals.
Langrial, meanwhile, continues to wear his hat when he drives his taxi three or four nights a week.
Under regulations of the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission, drivers are required to wear black pants, black closed-toe shoes and socks and white shirts. Baseball hats are allowed, as long as there is no writing other than that of the taxi certificate holder.
When the agent approached Langrial outside a casino, he said his hat did not conform with the dress code and asked the driver for his license.
“I refused to show him the license,” Langrial said. “I didn’t know them, who they were.”
The agent put an “out of service” tag on his cab after Langrial refused to show the license. While the agent went to his car to make a call, Langrial was summoned by the doorman to pick up a passenger.
Taxicab Commission Director Ron Klein said the vehicle-for-hire code calls for a suspension if a taxicab is taken out of service and the driver picks up passengers anyway.
Langrial said the agency mischaracterized him as uncooperative, and said the agent overstepped his authority. Klein said the stop was handled appropriately.
Klein added that Langrial has been offered a formal variance to wear the kufi, but has never formally applied for one.
“The concept of why the uniform was put into effect way before the commission was started … was to make the general public recognize that person as being a cabdriver who is licensed by the city,” said Klein.
In 2004, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the dress code cannot be enforced against drivers who certify their religious beliefs prevent them from complying.
Despite the 2004 state Supreme Court ruling, variances to the uniform standard based on religious reasons have been rare and are handled on “a fact-specific basis,” said Tom McCarthy, general counsel for the Taxicab Commission.
(Ken Leiser writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)