What’s Driving Religious Discrimination at the Alabama DMV?

NOTE - August 30, 2016: This post originally ran in April 2016.  Today the ACLU and ACLU of Alabama filed a federal lawsuit on Ms. Allen’s behalf, arguing that Lee County’s refusal to provide a religious accommodation to Ms. Allen violates her rights under the Alabama Constitution and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The lawsuit asks the court to order Lee County officials to allow Ms. Allen to retake her driver license photo with her headscarf.

I have always been a spiritual being. Even as a young child I would spend countless hours delving into the tattered pages of my Bible. Though I often have failed, I have tried to remain obedient to God and his Word. But last December, at the Alabama Department of Motor Vehicles, my faith was tested in a way that was humiliating and demeaning.

In accordance with my Christian faith, I cover my hair with a headscarf, but the DMV refused to take my driver license photo unless I removed it. The DMV officials said only Muslims were allowed to keep their headscarves on for photos. I didn’t know what to do. Without question, I believe that Muslim women should not have to violate their faith just to take a driver license photo, but neither should Christian women.  

I couldn’t believe that DMV officials could discriminate against me in this way, and it turns out, they can’t. On Friday, the ACLU and ACLU of Alabama sent the state a letter, informing officials that what the DMV did was wrong and unconstitutional. The government can’t provide a religious accommodation to members of one faith while denying the same right to those of other faiths.

Wearing a headscarf is an integral part of my Christian beliefs. In 2011, I moved with my children to Alabama after the end of a 12-year relationship with their father. I was lost, confused, hurt, and broken. But I turned to God and spent hours in prayer and study.  During that time, it became clear to me that, to be obedient to God’s Word and show my submission to him, I had to cover my hair on a daily basis. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul speaks very clearly without ambiguity about this. I have followed this command every day since and believe that removing my headscarf in public is extremely shameful and dishonors God.

Yet on that December day at the Lee County DMV office, I was forced into doing just that — or else officials said they would not renew my driver license, which was set to expire. As I posed for the photo, the clerk told me that I would have to remove my head covering and eyeglasses. 

I replied, “No ma’am, I don’t uncover my hair.” 

She asked me, “Is it for religious purposes?”

I smiled, “Yes, ma’am.” 

She then asked, “Are you Muslim?”

I responded, “No, Ma’am, I am Christian.”

She abruptly stated, “No, then you need to uncover your hair. Only Muslim women have the right to cover their hair in their driver license photos.”

I was horrified. A friend who had accompanied me saw the look on my face and quickly explained, “Ma’am she doesn’t uncover her hair ever.” The clerk, in a smug and condescending tone, replied, “You are not a Muslim, and Christian women don’t cover their hair.”   

I raised the issue with the clerk’s supervisor, but she too claimed that the rule was policy, adding that she was a Christian and does not cover her hair. I told the supervisor that while she is entitled to her interpretation of the Bible, so am I. She would not relent.  With no other choice — I could not be without a valid driver license — I agreed to remove my headscarf for the photo. I first politely asked whether the clerk could close the door while my hair was uncovered.  She refused. With tears in my eyes and utter disgust in my belly, I took the picture. 

As I have aged, life has handed me many challenges, prompting me to seek solace and guidance in the Bible and my faith. That did not change with the incident at the DMV. But I also knew that I could not stop there; I could not allow the DMV to discriminate against me or others, and that’s why I contacted the American Civil Liberties Union to help me vindicate my right to assert my religious beliefs and have them respected by the government.

I hope that the DMV officials will do the right thing without the need for litigation by allowing me to retake my photo with my headscarf and putting in place policies that ensure that no else endures the same treatment I did.

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Gaye Sherman

Before we get into the religious aspect, please ask yourselves WHY the picture-taking rules are there in the first place.

If it's to be able to verify that the person on the photo ID and the person presenting said photo ID are one and the same, doesn't it make sense to have your picture taken as you would normally present yourself in public? So the person looking at your ID could see that it is REALLY you? As long as the person is photographed "as they normally appear in public" and any scarves or wigs or hairstyles do not obscure the face so that recognition/verification would be difficult - who cares WHY?

As for the pastafarians - as long as they NORMALLY wear their religious headgear in public, I don't have a problem with it being on their photo ID. Ramen.

Susan Virden

This Is Wrong. Just Wrong

Disney

To whoever said a driver's license is a "privilege, not a right": actually, nowhere in the Constitution is the government granted the right to require you to ask for permission to move around (in a vehicle or otherwise). Again, the founding documents do not grant us any rights - they merely recapitulate natural rights that exist at birth and are imprescripible and inalienable - the Constitution and Bill of Rights are meant to make sure the .gov protects them and does not infringe upon them.

Solution to this woman's problem: remove the DMV and all unconstitutional requirements to hold a "driver's license". If you drive impaired and hurt/kill someone you are however wholly responsible of your actions and will face a jury of your peers.

Anonymous

It was interesting a few years back when the Catholic Church threatened to ex-communicate some Democrats in Congress for voting Pro-Choice, but not a word about the Bush supporters' positions on the death penalty and optional war.

True persons of faith are usually on the opposing sides of the powerful on many topics, not in bed with them! It's about one's religious nterpretation.

Anonymous

Your religious convections didn't apply to your 12 year relationship with a man you weren't married to and having children out of wedlock. I find that much more sinful than uncovering your head for a photo.

David

You need to get your priorities in oder. Why would youh pick out some obscure cultural observance to obsess on?

Anonymous

I'm a woman who recently became a Christian and I also wear a headcovering because of Corinthians. I had to get my driver's license from an Alabama DMV just a few days ago. I kept her story pulled up on my phone in case they asked me to remove it. She never should've had to have gone through this, but her story also could prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Fortunately, I wasn't asked to remove my headcovering - maybe because of her bravery to contact the ACLU. There was even a woman working there with a headcovering! However, I was asked why I wore it, whether it was for medical reasons or religious reasons. I said it was for religious reasons, but I think it really shouldn't matter altogether. If I have the religious freedom to wear a headcovering regardless of my beliefs about it, then I should have any other freedom to wear a headcovering regardless of my beliefs as well. The people who she dealt with were rude, hostile, and incredibly misinformed about headcovering for Christians. "Christian women don’t cover their hair." Actually, many do! Nuns, Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite, Orthodox, Catholic, etc. What happened is it simply became less common over time and Christian women stopped wearing it. Now, some Christian women are beginning to cover again. Check out HeadcoveringMovement.com. So, thank you, Yvonne! You never should've been made to be humiliated, made to cry, and made to feel powerless, but you were someone else's strength. You were my courage for going to the Alabama DMV, and maybe the reason no one asked me to remove it! PeaceInMyHeart.com

Satan

What do you do if the law and the Bible are in contradiction? For instance the Bible orders you to kill homosexuals and witches etc. It also orders women to obey their husbands, and slaves to obey their masters, etc. There are dozens of instances where they are in contradiction. Which takes preference?

Sharon Masters

Um.... wanna add the FOLLOW UP what HAPPENED?

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