PHILADELPHIA (CBSNewYork/AP) — A federal appeals court panel in Philadelphia on Tuesday was reviewing the legality of the controversial NYPD religious surveillance program.

The review comes in response to a lawsuit accusing the NYPD of illegally spying on ordinary people at mosques, restaurants and schools in New Jersey based on religion and race after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

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In February, an appeals court ruled that the practice is a lawful way to detect terror threats. But the groups contend that beginning in 2002, police “spied” on ordinary individuals who were not suspected of illegal activity and they want such surveillance outlawed, CBS News reported.

“We are American — as it American as it gets,” says lead plaintiff Farhaj Hassan, a sergeant in the US Army Reserves, “‘so we did the most American thing possible: we sued them.”

Hassan is one of 11 plaintiffs, including a coalition of mosques, claiming the mass surveillance program was both discriminatory and unconstitutional, Steve Tawa of KYW Newsradio reported.
“We all want law enforcement to find people who want to do us harm,” notes Glenn Katon, the legal director of Muslim Advocates. “You do that by looking at behavior, not the color of people’s skin, the way they pray, or their religion.”

“(The surveillance) assumes that people who are religious may simply, by virtue of their faith, be more dangerous,” says attorney Baher Azmy, with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “That’s an assumption that the law totally prohibits.”

Peter Farrell, senior counsel in New York City Law Department, argued that the intelligence gathering was a legitimate law enforcement tool and the injury alleged by plaintiffs was “self-imposed fear.”

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Following oral arguments, the three-judge panel said it would take the matter under advisement and issue a ruling later, Tawa reported.

Last April, the NYPD announced that it had disbanded the Demographics Unit — the surveillance program that was responsible for tracking the daily lives of Muslims.

Following a review, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton found that the same information collected by the unit could be better collected through direct contact with community groups, officials said.

Plainclothes officers infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and cataloged Muslims in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames.

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