By Abed A. Ayoub, From News Services, Atlanta [Georgia] Journal Constitution,
December 26, 2008
A Douglasville woman was jailed recently for refusing to remove her hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, in court. This calls into question whether constitutional rights ceased to exist in the Douglasville municipal courtroom of Judge Keith Rollins.
The hijab is worn by millions of Muslim women in accordance with their belief in Islam. Some choose to wear a hijab, a symbol of modesty, while others do not. There are many variations of the hijab; some women cover only their hair while others cover everything but their eyes, a style commonly seen in Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
In America, a majority of Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab cover only their hair, leaving the face visible for identification, as was the case with the woman sent to jail by Rollins.
The judge should note that followers of other religions observe the practice of headwear. Asking a Muslim woman to remove her hijab upon entering a courtroom is similar to asking a nun to remove her religious habit, a Jewish man to remove his yarmulke or a Sikh man to remove his turban.
The acts of Rollins are not only discriminatory, they are also unconstitutional.
Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents an individual from being deprived of or threatened with the loss of equal protection of the laws on account of race, color, religion or national origin by being denied equal use of any public facility. Denial of access to a courtroom based on religion is blatant discrimination. According to the Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, the only way a state may infringe upon the free exercise of a citizen’s religious observance is if a compelling state interest exists to justify such action. There clearly is no compelling state interest to deny individuals wearing any type of religious headwear access to justice in this fashion.
Rollins defended this unconstitutional act by pointing to a courtroom rule that prohibits head coverings. Most judges do not allow headwear, such as baseball caps, in order to preserve the integrity of the courtroom. Asking an individual to remove a baseball cap is not the same as asking him or her to remove religious headwear.
As a judge, Rollins is held to a higher moral and ethical standard. Rather than preserve the integrity of his courtroom, Rollins has done the opposite. Georgia citizens must ask how they can live in a nation free of discrimination and racial profiling when the very practices that civil rights activists from Georgia fought to abolish are being exhibited foolishly in the courtroom. For Georgia to live up to the mantra of “The New South,” acts such as those exhibited by the judge must be corrected.
Rollins has been entrusted with upholding the constitutional rights of all who enter his courtroom. It is time for him to issue a public apology for denying an individual’s access to justice. Furthermore, the courtroom policy should be amended to allow religious headwear in the courtroom; it is hard to believe that head coverings for religious observance are disrespectful in any way.
The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) believes that all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion, should be granted access to justice and we know that the people of Georgia, who have long been engaged in the fight for civil rights, share in our belief.
Abed A. Ayoub is legal advisor for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), based in Washington, D.C.