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June 27, 2002, Thursday

Lifting Veil for Photo ID Goes Too Far, Driver Says

By DANA CANEDY (NYT) 904 words

MIAMI, June 26 — A Muslim woman who says the state is violating her religious rights in demanding that she remove her veil for a driver’s license photograph will be in court this week to try to regain her driving privileges.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles revoked the license of the woman, Sultaana Freeman, in January after she refused to replace her photograph with one showing her face. Ms. Freeman, 34, a homemaker from Winter Park near Orlando says doing so would violate her religious beliefs, and she is suing the state in Orange County Circuit Court seeking reinstatement of her license. A hearing is set for Thursday to determine whether the state’s demand is unconstitutional.

”This is a stress on my entire family,” said Ms. Freeman, who is married and has a 1-year-old daughter. ”It’s an inconvenience every day. I can’t run simple errands like go to the post office or the grocery store. I can’t go visit friends and family. It’s certainly a disruption to our life.”

Even so, Ms. Freeman said: ”I am fighting for the principle and the religious freedom of all people in this country. It’s not all about me.”

Ms. Freeman wears a type of veil called a niqab, which covers all but her eyes. Her religious beliefs dictate that she not reveal her face to strangers or men outside her family.

In January 2001, Ms. Freeman moved to Winter Park from Illinois, where she had a driver’s license with a veil for many years. She was issued a Florida driver’s license that February. In December 2001, she received a letter from the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles instructing her to replace her photograph with one showing her entire face. After she refused, the state revoked her license in January.

Ms. Freeman’s lawyers contend that the demand is subjective, unreasonable and violates her religious freedom as well as her right to privacy and due process.

”Are we suggesting that it’s O.K. for any police officer to stop her and require her to remove her veil just so she can be identified?” said Randall Marshall, legal director in the Miami office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which is helping to represent Ms. Freeman.

That is what the state demands, said Robert Sanchez, public information administrator for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. ”Otherwise, it would be pointless to have photographs.”

Mr. Marshall said that at least a dozen states permit people to obtain driver licenses without photographs for religious reasons.

Mr. Sanchez said the motor vehicles department was simply following Florida law that requires ”full-face photographs” on driver’s licenses. Using the analogy of a strip search, he said, ”I think in a law enforcement context people are often required to do things that may offend their sense of modesty or some deeply held belief, but nonetheless may be one of those situations in which the public need for security outweighs other considerations.”

In the context of Muslim women with fully covered faces, ”when law enforcement officers make traffic stops, they need to know whether the person who presented the I.D. is the same person and one quick way to do so is by matching the photo and the face,” Mr. Sanchez said.

In its brief to the court, the Florida attorney general’s office said state law was clear in demanding that Ms. Freeman submit to an uncovered, full-face, photograph and called her ”hypersensitive” to the requirement. ”The reasonable person in Florida is not offended by having to sit for a driver license photo,” the brief said. ”This plaintiff is hypersensitive. Thus, her expectation of privacy is not protected.”

The attorney general’s office declined to answer questions about the case today and referred calls to the department of motor vehicles. Mr. Sanchez said he was unsure how the woman’s photograph was discovered, but that Ms. Freeman was ”somehow allowed to have her picture taken with her face covered.”

Ms. Freeman’s lawyers said Florida statues did not prohibit a person from wearing a veil in photographs for state licenses and that Florida was in violation of its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act says that laws that substantially burden the exercise of religion must have a compelling government purpose and must be the least restrictive as possible.

”This is a fundamental tenet of her religion and to require her to sacrifice having a driver’s license or choose between that and her religious belief is a violation not only of Florida’s Religious Restoration Act but also of the Florida Constitution,” said her lawyer, Howard Marks.

He said the state’s argument that ”safety concerns” demanded full facial photos was ”bogus,” in part because his client had offered to provide fingerprints, DNA or other information that could be used to verify her identity.

He said his client should not be subjected to unreasonable restrictions simply because of her religion.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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