FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
ORLANDO, FL -- Saying the government's crackdown on rights in the wake of 9/11 does not justify religious scapegoating of Muslims, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today asked a circuit court judge here to reinstate the driving privileges of a Muslim homemaker whose license was revoked after she declined on religious grounds to remove her face veil for a driver's license photo.
"Rather than respecting this woman's religious values, the state is using her as a scapegoat in this so-called war against terror," said ACLU of Florida cooperating attorney Howard Marks, who will argue the case today before Ninth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Janet C. Thorpe. "As if restricting one woman's ability to drive her kids to the doctor or go grocery shopping does anything to make us safer."
During day one of the scheduled four-day trial, Marks will argue that state officials violated Florida's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) when they revoked the driver's license of Sultaana Freeman of Winter Park, a devout Muslim who wears a face veil called a niqab and does not reveal her face to strangers or men outside her family, as dictated by her Islamic faith. The 1998 RFRA law prohibits Florida officials from interfering with a person's religious practice without a "compelling governmental interest." The ACLU also will argue the state's actions violate the Florida Constitution's free exercise clause, which limits governmental restrictions on religious exercise.
"We live in a religiously diverse country where everyone is supposed to have the right to practice and worship as they choose," said Randall Marshall, Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida. "Yet, here we have a case where the government is questioning one woman's sincerely held religious beliefs and then forcing her to compromise them under the false pretext of national security."
In January 2002, shortly after Freeman's license was suspended, the ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit on her behalf, citing three separate cases in Colorado, Indiana and Nebraska in which the courts ruled that individuals with certain clearly held religious beliefs have a right to obtain licenses without photographs. Those cases involved Christians who believe that the Second Commandment prohibits them from having their photographs taken.
"The niqab is part of who I am," said Freeman, 35, a U.S. citizen and mother of a six-month-old and two-year-old. "I wear the niqab because I believe that according to The Qur'an and Sunnah, Allah has legislated for the believing woman to dress in this modest way. Embracing the niqab was a very personal choice, and I thank Allah for the protection it has afforded me in life, as a woman of faith."
Freeman had no problem using a photograph wearing her niqab when she obtained a Florida license in February 2001, shortly after moving to Winter Park from Decatur, Illinois. She had a driver's license with the face veil while she lived in Illinois, which is one of at least 15 states with exemptions in driver's license statutes for people who have religious objections to being photographed. It was only after the September 11th attacks that the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles sent Freeman a letter instructing her to replace her old photograph with one showing her entire face. After she declined, her license was revoked.
State officials filed a motion to dismiss Freeman's lawsuit, claiming she is being "hypersensitive" and that public safety concerns outweigh her religious beliefs. But in June 2002, Orange County Circuit Court Judge Ted Coleman denied the state's motion to dismiss. At a May 16th hearing, Judge Thorpe ruled the case could go to trial to determine whether Florida officials violated state law.
At this week's trial, the ACLU also plans to argue the state is singling out Freeman based on her religious beliefs, while allowing others to obtain driving permits without photographs. According to Marks, Florida officials issued more than 800,000 temporary licenses and/or driving permits - without photographs - in the past five years to individuals in a variety of different categories. Convicted drunk drivers with revoked licenses are legally allowed to drive in Florida using only driving permits without photographs, as are foreign nationals, those who failed their eye or written exams and military personnel.
"Florida issues driver's licenses when it is satisfied that people are capable of driving on the roads of our state," added Marshall. "State officials should not be permitted to convert driver's licenses into mandatory universal identification cards."
The ACLU of Florida complaint in this case, Sultaana Lakiana Myke Freeman v. State of Florida, is available online at http://www.aclufl.org/freemancomplaint.html.
A statement by Freeman follows:
Statement of Sultaana LaKiana Myke Freeman
In The Name of Allah, The Most Beneficent, The Most Merciful. I am a devout Muslim, born and raised in the United States of America. A product of the public school system, I was taught that pilgrims came to this land fleeing religious persecution. I also learned that there are laws in this country that guarantee every citizen the right to freely practice his or her religion and that the government cannot and will not force a religion on the people.
I converted from Christianity to Islam as an adult, and when doing so, I expected to still be able to exercise freedom of religion and freedom of expression. With all praise being given to Allah, I was able to move about society freely as a veiling Muslim, wearing a niqab, which is a religious veil that covers a portion of the face. As a business professional at a large corporation, wearing the niqab in no way impeded me from performing my job. I discovered veiling to be the ultimate in self-respect and feminism, as this liberating act sent a clear message that I am not an object of sexual fulfillment but a person of strong religious conviction.
Whether you believe that the niqab is a requirement of Muslim women or not, the fact is - it is how I have chosen to practice my religion. I wear the niqab because I believe that according to The Qur'an and Sunnah, Allah has legislated for the believing woman to dress in this modest way. Embracing the niqab was a very personal choice, and I thank Allah for the protection it has afforded me in life, as a woman of faith.
With the solid support of my loving husband, the prayers of many people, and the efforts of concerned citizens, I have challenged the actions of the Florida DHSMV in its attempt to strip away the fundamental right to exercise religious freedom.
Over the next few days, my faith will be tested in a court of law. It is hard to believe that a person would ever have to justify his or her religious beliefs in a court of law. But that is, in fact, what has happened today. Incredibly, I have been asked to justify why I wear a veil in the presence of strangers. Why have I adopted such strict interpretations of the Holy Qur'an? Why am I being "hypersensitive?" Many Christians who abstain from taking photographs may be considered equally hypersensitive. But just as they fought in courts of law to uphold their own religious principles, so too will I.
There are millions of Americans who do not drive or have any identification with a photograph. I do not believe that the lack of a photo in any way hinders the authorities from arresting someone who has committed a crime, because they do it every day.
Wearing a religious veil is a peaceful, modest act; I am not a threat to public safety because of practicing Islam.
Whatever happens as a result of this case, I know that the outcome has already been decreed by Allah, and I put my hope and fear in Allah, the Source of All Goodness.