A group of eight Muslims has filed a federal lawsuit against the New York City Police Department, demanding that it bring an end to its surveillance practice initiated in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, of spying on mosques and businesses managed by the community.
The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in a federal court in New Jersey, is the first major legal challenge to NYPD's spy operations.
The eight plaintiffs claim that NYPD's surveillance of Muslim businesses and mosques, which has been carried on for years, denigrated the Islamic faith, violated the constitutional rights of countless Muslim-Americans and was discriminatory in nature.
Filed by advocacy group Muslim Advocates on behalf of the group of New Jersey residents, the suit calls for a "declaratory judgment" which labels specific surveillance of
Muslims based on faith unconstitutional and seeks a court order prohibiting the NYPD from future surveillance of Muslims based on faith.
"The NYPD programme is founded upon a false and constitutionally impermissible premise: that Muslim religious identity is a legitimate criterion for selection of law-enforcement surveillance targets," the lawsuit said.
"What makes America great is that everyone is treated equally under the law. These plaintiffs are ordinary citizens going about their lives who law enforcement spied on simply because of their faith," Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, said in a statement.
"This lawsuit is perhaps the most important legal challenge brought to date by American Muslims and could mark the beginning of a historical movement," Khera said.
The plaintiffs are New Jersey residents and include a US Army reservist, a Newark business owner who served in Vietnam and the imams of several mosques who were targeted by the NYPD Surveillance and Demographics unit.
"When the NYPD says all Muslims are suspects, we have a clear case of government denigrating religion," Muslim Advocates legal director Glenn Katon said.
Media reports had detailed how the NYPD was carrying out surveillance of Muslim neighbourhoods, keeping an eye on details like where people from the community ate, conducted prayers and held meetings. The police had infiltrated several mosques and Muslim student groups to carry out their clandestine surveillance.