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Federal Prison Illegally Bans Christian Head Scarves for Visitors Like Me

Audra Ragland
Audra Ragland
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November 17, 2017

See that woman in the photo to the right?

That’s me, Audra Ragland, wearing one of my many head coverings. As a Christian, I’ve come to believe that Scripture requires me to cover my head in public to show my submission to, and reverence for, God. I wear my head covering everywhere.

Last year, however, when I tried to visit my brother in the United States Penitentiary Atlanta, a prison officer demanded I remove my headscarf before entering the visitation area. According to the officer, the headscarf would have been allowed if I were Muslim or Jewish but, he claimed, the prison did not recognize “Christian head covering.”

That was wrong, and yesterday the ACLU of Georgia and the ACLU sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons demanding that they end this discriminatory practice.

Needless to say, I was astonished when the officer told me that my religious practice was not recognized. While not as common in the United States, many Christian women around the world cover their heads for religious reasons. I find my inspiration in 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul speaks of the importance of a woman covering her head. I offered to get my Bible and show the officer the basis for my belief, but he was adamant: I could only wear my headscarf into the visiting area if I were Jewish or Muslim.

I felt devastated and torn. I had traveled nearly 150 miles to visit my brother, but I was worried that God would take the removal of my head covering as a sign of disobedience. Knowing that it would be months before I would see my brother again, and knowing my decision to uncover or not would affect not only my visit but other family members with me as well, I ultimately felt like I had no choice but to remove my headscarf.

Walking through the visiting area with my head uncovered, past men I did not know, I felt humiliated and ashamed as I worried that I was dishonoring God. I decided at that point that I could not let this injustice and discrimination stand. Although I didn’t want to report the incident immediately, out of fear that my brother would be retaliated against, I resolved that I would make an effort to raise awareness of the Christian practice of head covering. So, after my brother’s recent release, I contacted the ACLU of Georgia to help me reach out to the prison. I knew that the ACLU has helped protect the religious-exercise rights of women of many faiths, including Christians, and was relieved to learn they would send a letter on my behalf.

As the letter explains, government officials shouldn’t serve as the arbiters of religious doctrine by determining which beliefs are “recognized” or which interpretation of Scripture is correct. And, under the First Amendment, the government should never favor or disfavor one faith over others. Forcing me to choose between my faith and visiting my family in prison was heartless — it was also illegal.

I hope that prison officials will recognize their mistake and stop applying their religious accommodation policies in a discriminatory manner. Women of all faiths should be allowed to cover their heads in accordance with their religious beliefs if they so choose, and no woman who visits a federal prison should be humiliated like I was.

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