San Bernardino County Agrees To Allow Religious Head Scarves In County Jails

November 3, 2008
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 519-7808 or 549-2666; media@aclu.org

ORANGE, CA – San Bernardino County agreed today to institute policies that accommodate the First Amendment right to wear religious head scarves in jail.

The agreement was reached after the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Southern California sued San Bernardino County in U.S. District Court in December 2007 on behalf of a 29-year-old Muslim woman who was forced by county sheriff’s deputies to remove her religious head covering while in custody in San Bernardino County’s West Valley Detention Center.

“We’re very pleased that San Bernardino County has agreed to changes that respect people’s religious beliefs while still keeping the jails safe. One of our country’s core values is the freedom to practice our religion,” said Ariela Migdal, staff attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “That freedom doesn’t go away even when we are in jail or prison.”

Under the settlement agreement, the county agreed to adopt a policy to accommodate women who wear head scarves for religious reasons. Under the new policy, women who are arrested will not be required to remove religious head coverings in the view of male officers and will be provided with temporary head scarves to wear while they are in custody. The county will train police officers on the new policy and has designated a point-person to handle any disputes or complaints that arise regarding the policy's implementation.

Jameelah Medina of Rialto, California was arrested at the Pomona station of Metrolink’s commuter rail system on December 7, 2005, for having an invalid train pass. She was taken to the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga for processing. Despite her repeated requests to keep her head covered during her day-long incarceration, Medina was forced to remove her hijab in the presence of men she did not know and to remain uncovered for much of the day.

Medina, who was born in the United States and raised in a Muslim family, wears a head scarf known as a hijab to cover her hair, ears, neck and part of her chest. Many Muslim women, like Medina, believe that they should be covered at all times in the presence of men who are not members of their immediate family.

“I’m happy that other women in jail will no longer be humiliated by being forced to take off their hijabs in front of strange men,” said Medina. “For a long time I struggled over doing anything about what happened to me because I was embarrassed about being arrested and put in jail, but I finally decided that doing something about the injustice was far more important.”

Medina was never prosecuted in connection with this arrest.

San Bernardino joins other law enforcement agencies across the country, including federal prisons, in having procedures that allow Muslim women to wear the hijab while in custody.

“San Bernardino saw that there’s no conflict between the needs of law enforcement and freedom of religion,” said Hector Villagra, Director of the Orange County office of the ACLU of Southern California, who filed a similar case in 2007 in the city of Orange. “We expect that other law enforcement agencies do the same.”

The attorneys on the case are Migdal and Lenora Lapidus of the national ACLU Women's Rights Project, Villagra of the ACLU of Southern California Orange County office and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

A copy of the settlement and more information on the case including podcasts with Medina and Migdal can be found at:
www.aclu.org/muslimwomen

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