A civil liberties attorney posed a question Wednesday in trying to explain how offended Muslim-Americans felt when they were detained for hours at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge while returning from a religious conference in Toronto:
How would the community react, Udi Ofer wondered, if local Catholics were detained for hours and fingerprinted upon returning from the installation of Pope Benedict XVI?
"It is the same First Amendment-protected rights of free speech, association and religious expression," Ofer, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in announcing the federal lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of five Muslim-Americans.
"It's easy to fall into the trap that this doesn't pertain to me, because I'm not Muslim and I don't attend Muslim conferences," Ofer explained. "But it's a slippery slope. Today American Muslims are being targeted. Tomorrow, it could be Catholic Americans. That's why it's important to (protect) the constitutional rights of free speech and religious expression."
The New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations held simultaneous news conferences Wednesday in Buffalo and New York City to announce the lawsuit.
It charges the Department of Homeland Security with detaining, interrogating, fingerprinting and photographing five Muslims solely because they attended the Islamic conference. The five, all American citizens, were among about 40 Muslims detained for up to 6 1/2 hours last Dec. 26 and 27.
The lawsuit, which seeks no monetary damages, asks the U.S. District Court to: declare that the Department of Homeland Security violated the constitutional rights of the five American Muslims, stop border agents from detaining Muslims merely because they are returning from a religious conference, and order the government to return or destroy all fingerprints and photos of these people.
The civil rights attorneys involved in the case want to know if the actions taken that night are part of a broader policy targeting Muslim citizens attending such religious events.
"The government must explain to the American people why it is harassing citizens who are attending religious conferences," said Corey Stoughton, an ACLU attorney.
"We haven't heard that this is never going to happen again," Ofer added.
The Homeland Security spokeswoman dealing with this case in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment.
Two of the five Muslims in the lawsuit discussed their ordeal at the Buffalo news conference.
"I felt helpless and powerless," said Galeb Rizek, 32, of Niagara Falls. "I felt like I didn't belong in the United States, even though I was born here and don't know any other country."
"I felt very humiliated," added Karema Atassi, 22, of Williamsville, who was detained for about five hours. "I didn't know why I was there."
Atassi said border agents clearly didn't want to detain the Muslims. One agent was in tears and suggested that those detained complain about their treatment.
Rizek doesn't object to strong security measures at the border, as long as everyone receives the same type of treatment.
"I'm totally against terrorism," he said. "I want to be protected. I'm an American, too."