Georgia Muslim Barred From Court Over Islamic Scarf


Posted Jun 28, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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CAIR asks state attorney general to ensure equal access

(WASHINGTON, D.C., 6/28/07) - A prominent national Islamic civil rights and advocacy group reported today that a Georgia Muslim seeking to contest a speeding ticket was allegedly barred from a courtroom in that state because she wears an Islamic headscarf, or hijab.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said the woman was prevented from entering the Valdosta, Ga., courtroom of Municipal Court Judge Vernita Lee Bender earlier this week by uniformed officers who reportedly demanded that she remove her scarf.

According to the woman, the officers barred her entry despite being told that she wears the scarf for religious reasons and after she offered to let a female officer perform a body search. One of the officers allegedly stated that the denial of entry to the courtroom was due to “homeland security” and that allowing her to enter would show “disrespect” to the judge.

The officers reportedly summoned the clerk of court who told the Muslim woman that she could schedule a future court date. After being told that she would be unable to enter the court at any future date while wearing her scarf, the Muslim woman felt compelled to agree to a plea of nolo contendere and was fined $168.

Through the clerk of court, Judge Bender communicated an apology for the denial of entry, but was quoted as saying that “we have rules that everyone has to follow.”

In a letter to Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker, CAIR wrote:

“We assert that Judge Bender’s actions violate the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct, which states: ‘Judges shall perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice. Judges shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, including but not limited to bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status, and shall not permit staff, court officials and others subject to judicial direction and control to do so.’

“It is also our contention that a courtroom is a ‘public facility’ under Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and denial of access to the courtroom based on religious beliefs or practices is therefore discriminatory.

“In addition, we believe Judge Bender’s actions are in violation of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freedom of religion and equal protection under the law. Two state supreme courts have ruled that government must show a compelling state interest in preventing religious head coverings in a courtroom. Obviously, we believe that no such compelling interest exists in this case.

“If enforced across the board, Judge Bender’s policy of exclusion would prohibit court entry to all Sikh men wearing turbans, all orthodox Jewish men and women wearing yarmulkes or head scarves, all Christian women wearing religious head coverings, and all Muslim men and women who wear skullcaps or scarves.”

CAIR requested Attorney General Baker to “take appropriate action to ensure that the legal, religious and civil rights of Georgians of all faiths be maintained.”

The Washington-based group also asked for a formal apology from Judge Bender and a written assurance that the Muslim woman and all others wearing religious attire be allowed in her court.

CAIR, America’s largest Muslim civil liberties group, has 33 offices, chapters and affiliates nationwide and in Canada. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.