ACLU Says Orlando Court Decision in Veil Case Permits Government to Needlessly Restrict Religious Freedom Without Enhancing Security
source: ACLU, June 6, 2003
ORLANDO, FL — The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said today's circuit court ruling in the case of a Muslim homemaker who declined on religious grounds to remove her face veil for a driver's license photo is a needless restriction on religious freedom with no benefit to public safety.
"We're concerned because the government's tendency in the aftermath of September 11th has been to restrict numerous freedoms merely for the sake of restricting liberty, rather than to make us truly safer," said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. "Today's ruling runs counter to the most basic principles of religious freedom that give everyone — including members of minority religious communities as well as majority Christian faiths — the right to practice and worship as they choose."
In a 16-page order issued today, Ninth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Janet C. Thorpe upheld the actions of state officials, who in January 2002 revoked the driver's license of Sultaana Freeman. A devout Muslim from Winter Park, Freeman wears a face veil called a niqab and does not reveal her face to strangers or men outside her family, as dictated by her Islamic faith. Although Thorpe acknowledged that Freeman "most likely poses no threat to national security," she ruled that security concerns outweigh religious freedom and declined to reinstate Freeman's driving privileges.
Simon noted that the state allowed others to obtain driving permits without photographs. In the past five years, he said, Florida officials issued more than 800,000 temporary licenses and/or driving permits — without photographs — to individuals in a variety of different categories. Convicted drunk drivers with revoked licenses are legally allowed to drive in Florida using only driving permits without photographs, as are foreign nationals, those who failed their eye or written exams and military personnel.
The ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit on Freeman's behalf shortly after her license was revoked, citing three separate cases in Colorado, Indiana and Nebraska in which the courts ruled that individuals with certain clearly held religious beliefs have a right to obtain licenses without being photographed. Those cases involved Christians who believe that the Second Commandment prohibits them from having their photographs taken.
"The court has basically ruled that when it comes to matters of national security, prior case law does not apply," said ACLU of Florida Legal Director Randall Marshall, co-counsel in the lawsuit along with ACLU cooperating attorney Howard Marks of Winter Park. "The fact that the court can set aside long-established precedent does not bode well for any cherished freedom that stands in the way of the perceived enhancement of security."
In February 2001, Freeman was issued a Florida license wearing her niqab. She had a driver's license with the face veil while she lived in Illinois — one of at least 15 states with exemptions in driver's license statutes for people who have religious objections to being photographed. It was only after the September 11th attacks that the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles sent her a letter instructing her to replace her old photograph with one showing her entire face. After she declined, her license was revoked.