Michigan Judges Can Ask Muslim Women to Remove Veils in Court

June 18, 2009 07:30 PM
by Anne Szustek
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that judges may ask those testifying in court to remove niqabs, or Islamic facial veils, at their discretion. Where is the balance between religious rights and security?

Michigan Ruling on Niqab: Judges May “Exercise Reasonable Control”

According to the Detroit News, Michigan’s highest state court voted 5-2 on the measure, saying that judges are allowed to “exercise reasonable control,” in the attire of those on the witness stand when it affects the judge’s ability to determine the witness’ identity and comportment in court.

The case dates back to 2006, when Ginnah Muhammad was in small claims court regarding a $3,000 charge for repairs to a rental car she said had been broken into. District Judge Paul Paruk, of Hamtramck, Mich., asked Muhammad to remove her niqab, the facial veil worn by some observant Muslim women, so that he could assess her truthfulness when testifying. Muhammad refused to remove her veil, leading the judge to dismiss her case. Muhammad subsequently sued Paruk, but the court dismissed that case as well.
Dawud Walid, executive director of Southfield, Mich. Council on American-Islamic Relations, suggested that some women might not report a crime to avoid having to remove attire they see as a part of their faith. “There isn’t any clear articulation in regards to what will or will not be acceptable according to a judge’s general discretion,” he told The Detroit News.

Two Supreme Court justices dissented because the ruling did not provide a clear-cut exception for religious attire.

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Background: The balance between religious freedom and greater security

The Ginnah Muhammad case “pits two cherished American values,” The Wall Street Journal law blogger writes: “the desire to let people practice their religions freely against the desire for transparency and integrity within our justice system.”

This is a recurring civil conundrum.

In 2005, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals backed an earlier state civil court decision that Sultaana Freeman, a recent convert to Islam, would not be allowed to wear her niqab for her Florida state driver’s license photo. Originally, the state granted her a license with her wearing a niqab, but suspended the license in 2001. Two years later, Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law a requirement that Florida driver’s licenses picture the whole face. “As long as the laws are neutral and generally applicable to the citizenry, they must be obeyed,” United Press International quoted Appellate Judge Emerson Thompson Jr., as writing in his 2005 decision.

And earlier this year, Kawaljeet Kaur Tagore, an observant Sikh, filed a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service, which fired her for her wearing the “kirpan,” a knife that Sikhs must carry as religious attire. The IRS banned the kirpan, categorizing it as a “dangerous weapon,” despite that it did not set off building security detectors.

Britain has also weighed individual religious rights vis-à-vis the greater civil good.

A 2006 decision allowed U.K. lawyers to wear veils unless judges deemed the coverings an obstacle to the “interests of justice,” as in Ginnah Muhammad’s case. But as in the Michigan decision, questions over being able to decipher facial expressions left at peril the job of Aishah Azmi, a niqab-wearing teaching assistant who was suspended from her job in 2006. U.K. ministers ruled in 2007 that schools have the right to forbid facial veils on a case-by-case basis. “If a pupil’s face is obscured for any reason the teacher may not be able to judge their engagement with learning,” reads the official government guidance text. Safety and security were also mentioned as possible concerns.

The decision immediately left undetermined the state of Azmi’s employment. But her case was also emblematic of how the concept of multiculturalism in the United Kingdom may be changing. Prime Minister Tony Blair called the niqab “a mark of separation;” House of Commons Leader Jack Straw said that the veil impedes communication.

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