Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Listen to this article

Those unfortunate enough to be taken into custody by police must go through a booking process that includes taking a mug shot.

That seems like a straightforward requirement. But a Muslim woman has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the authority of Cook County deputies to require her to remove her hijab, a religious head covering, while having her picture taken.

Alexandra Vardalas Maragha alleges that the requirement violates her religious beliefs, and U.S. Judge Sara Ellis recently ruled she may have a valid claim under federal law that protects religious liberty.

In doing so, Ellis denied Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s motion to dismiss the case.

“At this stage, (Maragha) has sufficiently alleged that the officers’ conduct seriously violated her religious beliefs,” Ellis wrote.

The case, of course, is still in its preliminary stage. Dart’s motion to dismiss addressed the legal “sufficiency of the complaint, not its merits.”

Legal rights of individuals in police custody are extremely limited. However, when it comes to issues like religious freedom, federal law prohibits jail officials from imposing a “substantial burden” on an arrested person’s religious liberty unless that burden furthers a “compelling governmental interest and does so by the least restrictive means.”

Maragha alleged her religion compels her to wear her headscarf, which covers her head, hair and neck, in public spaces and in the presence of men who are not members of the woman’s immediate family.

Authorities said Maragha came into contact with Chicago police in 2017 after they learned of a warrant for her stemming from her failure to appear in court following a 2011 traffic violation.

She was eventually taken to the Cook County jail, where female correctional officers required her to remove her hijab for her booking photo.

“Distressed and humiliated, (Maragha) explained the significance of her hijab and noted that she wore it for both her driver’s license and passport photographs. However, the officers demanded she remove the hijab, taking the photograph only after she did so,” Ellis wrote.

Dart’s lawyer argued the judge should dismiss the case because Maragha was in custody for so short a time that the officers’ action could not have imposed a “substantial burden” on her ability to practice her religion.

But the judge said “no such bright-line rule exists, with courts instead recognizing that determining whether burden is substantial is ‘ordinarily a question of fact’ and a ‘relative term.’”

She quoted from a previous decision by the 9th circuit court of appeals that stated, “A Muslim woman who must appear before strange men she doesn’t know, with her hair and neck uncovered in a violation of her religious beliefs, may feel shame and distress. This is precisely the kind of ‘mischief’ (the applicable federal law) was intended to remedy.”

Of course, there are two sides to every story.

Just as a Muslim woman may feel strongly about being permitted to wear her hijab when taking a booking photo, law officers feel equally strongly about taking a full and complete picture of arrested individuals.

Photos of that nature are commonly used in law enforcement, and allowing an arrested person to obscure a crucial component of their appearance — hair, or lack of it; hair color — can be perceived as a “compelling government interest.”

This case could be instrumental in determining how this issue should be balanced — or maybe not.

Maragha filed a similar lawsuit against Chicago police, but it was settled out of court. This case already is four years old, Maragha and the county sheriff may well decide to settle its case to avoid future wear and tear.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

Trending Videos