Head scarf runs afoul of bank policy

March 10, 2009|By Matt Zapotosky | Matt Zapotosky,Washington Post Staff Writer

A Muslim woman was asked to leave her place in line at a credit union in Southern Maryland and be served in a back room because the head scarf she wore for religious reasons violated the institution's "no hats, hoods or sunglasses" policy, the woman said yesterday.

The incident at the Navy Federal Credit Union on Saturday was the second in a month for Kenza Shelley, and Muslim advocates fear it could become a problem nationwide as many financial institutions, intent on curbing robberies and identity theft, ban hats and similar items without accommodations for religious attire.

"There's got to be a way to work it out so that this security concern does not lead to violations of constitutional rights," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Shelley, 54, who runs a day care out of her home in Lexington Park, said she has used the credit union in the St. Mary's County community of California for more than 10 years.

Until February, no employees had complained about her head scarf. But a few weeks ago, she said, she was standing in line to deposit a check when an employee asked her to come to the back room, referring to a new policy that prohibited hats, hoods and sunglasses. She complied but asked if she would have to go through the same process each time she made a transaction.

On Saturday, Shelley said, employees again asked her to come to the back room if she would not remove her head scarf. "No," she recalled telling them, "I want to be served like everybody else."

Tom Lyons, the senior vice president for security at Navy Federal, said he was not aware of Shelley's case and could not discuss it specifically. But he defended the credit union's new policy, implemented in December, saying it was designed to prevent armed robbery and identity theft.

He said it would not be unreasonable for bank employees to ask customers who refused to take off their hats to move to a separate room so they could be identified.

"We want to be able to clearly identify who you are and make sure the transaction is safe," Lyons said. "This is a policy that applies to everybody in the branch."

Lyons said banks saw a significant spike in robberies last year, especially in the Washington area, and that many banks have instituted similar policies.

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