Blog of Rights

An Expression of Faith

By Lisa Valentine at 3:40pm

On December 16, 2008 I accompanied my nephew to the Douglasville Municipal Courthouse. At the time I had no idea that I was about to get the shock of my life! As we approached the security desk, the officer told me that I was not allowed in the courthouse with my headscarf on. I am a practicing Muslim woman who wears a headscarf (hijab) daily when out in public. As I explained this to the officer, she told me, it didn't matter, that the judge did not allow any type of headgear in the courtroom. In disbelief I asked how can that be? This is my constitutional right. Not allowing me access to the court house is discrimination. The officer remained adamant that I would not be allowed in the courthouse even after I expressly conveyed to her that the wearing of the headscarf is an expression of my faith. I told her it was BS and proceeded to leave.

The officer blocked the entrance to the door and said that I couldn't leave, that I had to talk to the judge since I didn't agree with his policy. I was then whisked away to Judge Rollin's court room (with my headscarf on). When the judge was ready to see me, he asked the officer what the problem was. She proceeded to tell him about our exchange regarding his policy and then she added that I was “fighting with them.” The judge turned to me and said, "I am going to give you a few seconds to tell me why I should not hold you in contempt of court." I proceeded to tell him that I did say those things, but I didn't know what I did wrong and that I did not fight with anyone. The judge then sentenced me to ten days in jail for contempt of court.

After being booked, fingerprinted, and disrobed I was chained to other detainees, men and women alike. Thankfully, I did not have to spend a full night in jail. Thanks to the numerous phone calls from family members, (my husband especially), members of CAIR , the Department of Justice and other organizations I was released later in the evening. Maybe it's hard for some people to understand how I can compare to having to remove my headscarf in public to being disrobed. Wearing the hijab is an expression of my faith and it is a practice that I have adhered to for over 13 years. My headscarf is as much a protective piece of clothing as a shirt or pants or any other article of clothing that one may find embarrassing to be without.

This was definitely a humiliating experience for me. First not being allowed access to the courthouse was particularly disturbing. I wondered what kind of preconceived prejudices the judge must have to adopt such a policy. Secondly the behavior of the officers was equally appalling. How can I be detained because I did not agree with the judge's policy when the policy was unconstitutional!

I am grateful to the ACLU, especially Azadeh Shahshahani, who worked with me on this case to ensure no person will be denied access to courthouses because of religious expression regardless of their faith. In July 2009, the Georgia Supreme Court Commission adopted a policy drafted by the ACLU regarding the treatment of religious head covering.

Additionally, a civil lawsuit was filed against the city and the police officers that were involved in my arrest. We recently settled this lawsuit out of court and the city has adopted a head covering screening policy which in part states that head coverings for religious or medical reasons may be allowed in courtrooms, and if a security search is deemed required, the individual wearing the head covering may have the inspection performed in a private place by a same-sex officer.

I am also grateful that the view of that judge is not the view of the people. I have received support from numerous organizations, inter-faith groups, individuals, coworker's, friends and strangers. All well wishers who support civil liberties for all. Since moving from the north to Georgia, we have been immensely impressed with the southern hospitality we received. People we don’t even know have welcomed us. Their small acts of kindness carry us through stressful days. I had many people from all different faiths letting me know that they were praying for me and for a resolution of this situation. In all honesty, even if no one said a word, all prayers were heartfelt and strengthened our resolve.

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