Any form of religious expression which is incontrovertibly linked to a religion should be classified as free speech in America and therefore the bearer or wearer should be allowed to go wherever need be. It was disgraceful for personnel in a Georgia court room to cite a Muslim woman for contempt of court and sentence her to 10 days in prison for the “offense” of wearing her religiously mandated scarf to court. She wasn’t scheduled to testify, she wasn’t a defendant or lawyer in court, she was merely accompanying a relative and was met at the door with the State’s infringement on her right to freedom of religion. That has now changed, for the Muslim citizens of Georgia.
Georgia courtrooms will allow religious headgear after last year’s arrest of a Muslim woman who refused to remove her headscarf in a west Georgia courthouse.The Judicial Council of Georgia voted unanimously this week to allow religious and medical headgear into Georgia courtrooms. It also allows a person to request a private inspection if a security officer wants to conduct a search.
“If this had been a nun, no one would have required her to remove her habit,” said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, who heads the Judicial Council. “I think this is a good rule, and I think it’s clear.”
The policy shift stems from the December 2008 arrest of Lisa Valentine, who was ordered to serve 10 days in jail for contempt of court after she refused to remove her hijab at a courtroom in Douglasville, a town of about 20,000 people west of Atlanta. She was released in less than a day.
Muslim rights activists were infuriated by the incident, pressing the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the incident and organizing a protest. The city also said its employees would take sensitivity training classes.
City officials at the time said they were trying to follow courtroom rules that restricted headgear, but the city said the officer who detained Valentine should have sought a solution that “would preserve the spirit of the law.”
Valentine, who did not immediately return phone messages Friday, said she was accompanying her nephew to a hearing when officials stopped her at the metal detector and told her she couldn’t enter the courtroom with the headscarf, known as a hijab.
She said she was stopped by officers when she objected and turned to leave, and that she was later brought before a municipal court judge who ordered her held for contempt of court.
City officials did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment, but Douglasville Police Chief Joe Whisenant characterized the incident at the time as a miscommunication.
The police department said in a news release that Valentine was found in contempt for fighting with one of the officers, not for wearing a scarf. The city said she was released after it was determined there had not been a fight.
Muslims are just as much a part of the American fabric as any other ethnic group and their rights as citizens cannot and should not be abridged because of personal dislikes or community wide prejudices. Personal likes and dislikes have no place in determining what is legal and illegal. The Constitution, and particularly the 1st amendment says in clear language that the legislative body of this Republic cannot make any law prohibiting the free exercise of any religion. In this regard we are different and better than our European cousins who bend the rules to satisfy contemporary societal mores usually directed towards those they deem distasteful. Whether we like it or not, we have become a pluralistic society that is home to people of faiths, colors, creeds that span the entire breath of human existence; we must live under this umbrella of law that has been developed throughout the lifetime of America, sometimes carefully and deliberately, and at other times impulsively yet judiciously. To do otherwise would make us criminals before the law and before our Creator.