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What’s Driving Religious Discrimination at the Alabama DMV?

Yvonne Allen
Yvonne Allen
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April 25, 2016

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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