A New Jersey Transit worker who was fired after burning pages of a Koran during a demonstration in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11 last year has been reinstated, reimbursed for lost wages and benefits, and awarded $25,000 in compensation for the pain and suffering caused by his dismissal.
The reinstatement of the worker, Derek Fenton of Bloomingdale, N.J., was announced on Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which sued the transportation corporation on his behalf, arguing that his actions were protected by the First Amendment. The reinstatement was part of a settlement agreement, filed this week in Federal District Court in Newark, in which Mr. Fenton dropped his suit in exchange for getting his job back.
“In America, we have the right to burn all kinds of things — letters, flags, books, Bibles and Korans,” Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the New Jersey group, said Friday.
Ms. Jacobs said the case should “serve as a reminder to our leaders that they can’t punish and censor political expression based on their own emotional reactions or sense of morality.”
Mr. Fenton, 40, was fired two days after the demonstration, accused of violating New Jersey Transit’s employee code of ethics by tearing pages from a copy of the Koran and igniting them with a cigarette lighter to protest plans for building a Muslim community center and mosque two blocks north of ground zero. He was participating in a protest staged by about 2,000 people near the proposed site of the center, 51 Park Place, during a day of memorial and prayer services marking the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
After the civil liberties union sued in February, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey told reporters that he supported Mr. Fenton’s dismissal. “That kind of intolerance is something I think is unacceptable,” he said. “So I don’t have any problem with him being fired. You’ve got to make decisions in this job. I made one.”
Mr. Christie said, however, that he was unaware of the decision to fire Mr. Fenton until after it was made.
A spokesman for the governor’s office did not return several calls and messages on Friday seeking comment. A spokesman for New Jersey Transit referred questions about the case to the state attorney general’s office, but a spokesman there did not return repeated calls.
Frank L. Corrado, a lawyer who represented Mr. Fenton with a co-counsel, Rubin Sinins, both working pro bono, said he did not know why Mr. Fenton felt so strongly about the proposed Muslim center, or whether his action was prompted by the last-minute decision of a pastor, Terry Jones, to scrap plans to burn a Koran that day outside his Florida church.
Ms. Jacobs said of Mr. Fenton, “He just seemed to be angry about the community center being too close to ground zero.” Opponents of the center described the proposed building as an assertion of Islamic “triumphalism.”
At Mr. Fenton’s request, his lawyers obtained an assurance in the settlement agreement that he would not have to attend extra sessions of cultural “sensitivity training” upon his return to work. “He did not want to have to do that,” Mr. Corrado said, “And we felt that thought control should not be the employer’s business here.”
The settlement was reported on Friday by The Star-Ledger of Newark.
Mr. Fenton, an 11-year veteran of New Jersey Transit who was a commuter train conductor before assuming duties as an $86,000-a-year supervisor several years ago, will still undergo “whatever diversity education is required from time to time of every employee,” Mr. Corrado said. “He just won’t get special treatment.”
The code of ethics Mr. Fenton was cited for violating forbids employees from “bringing disrepute” on the agency, Mr. Corrado said. But during the demonstration, Mr. Fenton was off duty and wore nothing to indicate that he worked for the transit agency, the lawyer added.
Pamela Geller, a blogger who was instrumental in organizing the Sept. 11 demonstration, said she did not know Mr. Fenton or condone his actions. “I wouldn’t do what he did, myself; it’s disrespectful,” she said. “But it’s free speech.”
Ibrahim Hooper, the spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights advocacy group, said his organization had not sought Mr. Fenton’s firing. “We have always believed,” he said, “that somebody should not be punished in their employment for actions taken — no matter how reprehensible — in their private lives.”
The NY Times