The Fuss About Covering Up

In December 2008, Judge Keith Rollins’ arrest of Lisa (Miedah) Valentine at the Douglasville Municipal Court for wearing her hijab, a religious covering, sparked national debate over whether or not Muslim women and others should be allowed to wear their symbols of faith in the courtroom. As absurd as it is that this kind of debate even occurs in the United States—a country supposedly founded on the principle of religious freedom—the real issue at hand is not one of mere “tolerance.” Valentine and others’ right to wear religious head coverings in public should not even be a point of contestation.

First and foremost, the Valentine case is especially disturbing from a Constitutional standpoint. The free exercise of one’s religion is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and the First and 14th Amendments have governed the state’s ability to interfere with religious practice since at least the middle of the 19th century. There is more than just a textual significance to these amendments. Some historians have argued that the pursuit of religious freedom by persecuted minorities—including but not limited to the Protestant denominations that dominate our national headlines today—was the impetus for widespread emigration from Western Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Judge Rollins’ conduct is especially inexcusable given the local statutes in question. Canon 3, Section B5 of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from being religiously biased, and a Georgia’s Council of Municipal Court Judges brochure mandates that even hats should not be taken off if worn for religious purposes. As Marc D. Stern wrote on behalf of the American Jewish Congress about this incident, “I have appeared at counsel’s table in the U.S. Supreme Court several times wearing a religious head-covering…I am reasonably confident that wearing such symbols does not disrupt the processes of justice.”

This is not Judge Rollins’ first attempt to curb the free exercise of religious practice in the courtroom. In 2007, he prevented another Muslim woman from entering the courtroom with her hijab. And last year, Halimah Abdullah spent a day in jail for not removing her head covering in Rollin’s courtroom. Nor is the discriminatory treatment limited to women or even the Muslim population as a whole. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) addressed another such case of a Muslim woman in Valdosta last year, and Jasmeen Nanda, a Sikh man wearing a turban, and Rabbi Friedman, a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke, were also told to remove their religious headgear in the courtroom.

Aside from the abstract and Constitutional issues underlying the case, there is a simple lack of evidence at hand for Valentine’s arrest. Considering her reason for appearing in front of the court—a minor traffic violation—it is mystifying why the bailiff and other law enforcement officials would treat her like a criminal and drag her in front of a judge. More disturbing than this arrest is the ex post facto change in the charges brought against Valentine—somehow, a procedural violation (no headgear in the courtroom) became a real criminal charge (fighting with an officer). This charge was not only proven false by later investigation, but was totally unwarranted in the first place. Nor was Valentine’s sentence—a ten-day jail sentence and a mandate to remove her headscarf outside of the courtroom—appropriate. Asking a Muslim woman or an Orthodox Jewess to remove her headscarf in public is like asking her to disrobe or to expose herself. In an appalling misuse of the judicial system’s power, Valentine was asked to do so by a judge and police officers who have sworn to uphold the law to the best of their abilities.

Official reaction has been swift but relatively benign. Judge Rollins and city court workers will now undergo sensitivity training to prevent such incidents from occurring again. While this is a good measure to prevent future incidents, more needs to be done in the specific incident. Judge Rollins and the law enforcement officers in question should be charged with real disciplinary violations, not simply coddled and warned.

There is hope that this issue will someday be addressed in its entirety. Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker has already written a letter to CAIR supporting the principle of religious accommodation in our courtrooms; he should follow up on his support for First Amendment rights by sanctioning or censuring Judge Rollins. The Department of Justice has also stated that it will look into this case; hopefully, its response will be unequivocal in its support for Valentine.

As the United States attempts to repair its image with Muslims around the world, it is imperative that our deeds match up to our lofty aspirations. Our society’s respect for religious freedom should be beyond reproach; the Valentine case has simply demonstrated that there is still much work left to be done.

Nafees A. Syed ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Leverett House.