By Steve Tawa

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A federal appeals court panel in Philadelphia is reviewing the legality of the New York Police Department’s controversial religious surveillance program.

Muslims who brought the lawsuit say the NYPD spied on them solely based on their religion.

“We are American —  as it American as it gets,” says lead plaintiff Farhaj Hassan (fourth from right in photo, wearing red necktie), 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.

“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 law department for the City of New York, argued that the intelligence gathering was a legitimate law enforcement tool and the injury alleged by plaintiffs was “self-imposed fear.”

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

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