FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MADISON, WI -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin today filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Cynthia Rhouni, a Muslim woman who was forced to remove her religious headscarf, or hijab, in front of male guards and prisoners as a condition of visiting her son's father at Columbia Correctional Institution.
"The law requires the government to accommodate religious exercise," said David Lasker, a Madison attorney who is representing the woman in cooperation with the ACLU of Wisconsin. "Although prisons have legitimate reasons to thoroughly search visitors, the prison in this case could have easily met its security needs by having a female guard search Ms. Rhouni's hijab. Instead, the guards and administrators chose to trample unnecessarily on her religious freedom."
Rhouni, a practicing Muslim woman, wears a headscarf at all times in public, particularly in the presence of men, as required by her faith. Failure to wear a headscarf under such circumstances constitutes a serious violation of her beliefs.
"I felt naked. I felt I disgraced my family and my religion," said Rhouni, who has sought religious counseling to come to terms with this forced violation of her beliefs.
The incident occurred on February 2, 2003, when Rhouni took her son to visit his father, an inmate at Columbia Correctional Institution. At the gatehouse, the guard on duty told Rhouni she would have to remove her headscarf to enter. Rhouni explained that she wears the headscarf for religious reasons and offered to remove it in the presence of a female guard so the prison could be sure she was unarmed, but prison officials refused to accommodate her request.
Because she felt it was necessary for her son, who was having problems in school, to see his father, Rhouni took off her headscarf in front of the male guard and left it in a gatehouse locker. She entered the prison visiting area, but was humiliated and filled with guilt because she did not have her scarf while in the presence the male prisoners.
The lawsuit seeks damages and a court order that the prison change its policy to accommodate the religious rights of prison visitors.