Muslim women and others who wear face coverings for religious purposes can be required to remove the garb to enter courthouses, Maryland's attorney general has determined in a legal opinion, raising concerns among civil liberties advocates about how the practice will be carried out.
The opinion addresses a sensitive issue that has sparked debate and outcry in recent years, including protests over the French government's ban several years ago on the Muslim hijab, or head scarf, or any religious apparel in public schools, and questions raised in the United States about the right of Muslim women to wear head coverings in driver's license photos and in courtrooms.
Responding to questions from the Prince George's County sheriff, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's office said it weighed the First Amendment right to freedom of religion against the state's interest in securing courthouses. It found that for security or identification, law enforcement could require individuals to temporarily remove masks, veils and other face coverings at security checkpoints if the policy is applied consistently.
To minimize potential conflicts, Gansler's office suggests that security details have male and female officers and that a private space be set aside at courthouse entrances for those whose religion discourages them from removing a head covering in public or in front of a member of the opposite sex.
But David Rocah, an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union who reviewed the opinion, said he worries that women will be routinely asked to remove the niqab, an Islamic facial veil, and that it won't be done in the "respectful" way that Gansler's office suggests.
While Gansler's opinion deals specifically with facial coverings, Rocah raised concerns that it could be interpreted to apply to other kinds of head coverings, such as turbans worn by Sikhs or habits by nuns. "From the perspective of religious adherents, they don't care whether it is a law of general applicability," Rocah said. "All they know and experience is that something for them that's a religious tenet is suddenly illegal or not allowed."
Bash Pharoan, president of the Baltimore chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, acknowledged that security guards might have a legitimate reason to ask people to remove facial coverings. But he also urged respect and noted that President Barack Obama, during his speech Thursday in Cairo, Egypt, defended the choice of some Muslim women to don the head scarf.
"This is really about personal identity and religious freedom," Pharoan said. "A woman who wears the hijab is obeying the call of God."
The Prince George's sheriff's office sought the opinion after deputies heard of cases concerning Muslim women in other courthouses and wanted guidance, said Sgt. Mario Ellis, a spokesman. "Nothing happened locally," he said. "We were just trying to be proactive and get an answer before this issue comes up here."
Many disputes arise out of cultural ignorance, said John Voll, a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University. He said that for Muslim woman, the hijab or niqab is a matter of chastity and propriety. He compared forcing the removal of that garb at a security checkpoint, rather than in a private setting, to subjecting any woman to a public strip search.
"The parallel would be for a deputy sheriff to require a woman going through security to take off her brassiere right there in the inspection section," he said.