MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Standing near the Delta Air Lines ticket counter at Memphis International Airport, Muslim cleric Masudur Rahman described what it felt like to be kicked off a flight earlier this year while traveling to a religious conference.
"It was really a humiliation," said Rahman, an adjunct instructor of Arabic at the University of Memphis.
On May 6, Rahman and Mohamed Zaghloul, who were both dressed in traditional Muslim attire, were on their way from Memphis to a conference in Charlotte, N.C., hosted by the North American Imams Federation. The topic of the conference was "Islamaphobia."
The two clerics were cleared to fly during an initial TSA checkpoint and again after a random, secondary check and search at the gate. They boarded the plane, but were soon booted off.
The men filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Delta and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, the Delta Connection carrier that was operating the flight. The suit alleges that the pilot had them removed from the plane based on "arbitrary and capricious reasons, including his personal preconceived notions of race, religion and national origin."
According to the lawsuit, a Delta supervisor told the men that the pilot "believed the mere presence and perception of the Plaintiffs on his plane would make other passengers feel uncomfortable."
Zaghloul, 49, who is originally from Egypt, is a religious leader at the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis. Rahman, 37, is originally from India.
"In their attempt to attend a national conference about countering the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry, Masudur Rahman and Mohamed Zaghloul ... came face-to-face with the discrimination they hoped to learn how to diminish," the lawsuit says.
The airlines issued the following statement Monday: "Atlantic Southeast and Delta oppose discrimination in any form from any source, and our employees act at all times in the best interest of passenger safety and security. We cannot comment further on pending litigation."
According to the lawsuit, after the clerics took their seats on the plane, an airline agent asked to see their identification and once again cleared them to fly.
Shortly after the plane began to taxi on the runway, the pilot announced they would be returning to the gate. The clerics were ordered to get their bags and get off the plane.
The suit says a high-ranking Delta employee, who was distraught by the pilot's actions, asked passengers if they felt uncomfortable with the clerics and gave them the option to switch flights and receive a voucher. No passengers indicated they were uncomfortable.
The men caught a flight to Charlotte seven hours later. Zaghloul had been scheduled to give a prayer at the conference, but arrived too late because of the delay.
They are asking the court to declare that the pilot's actions were wrong and prohibit the airlines from discriminating against passengers. They're also seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
(Contact Sheri Drake Silence of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at email@example.com.)