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Veiled Driver's Photo Disallowed

Citing public safety concerns, a Florida judge rules against a Muslim woman who wanted a license that shows only her eyes.

June 07, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg and Anna M. Virtue | Times Staff Writers

MIAMI — A Florida judge refused Friday to allow a Muslim mother and homemaker to obtain a driver's license without removing her veil for the identification photo, saying it would set a dangerous precedent that might be exploited by criminals or terrorists.

While acknowledging that the woman "most likely poses no threat to national security," state Circuit Judge Janet C. Thorpe ruled that if full-face cloaks were permitted in driver's license photos, some people might pretend "to ascribe to religious beliefs in order to carry out activities that would threaten lives."

"It would be foolish not to recognize that there are new threats to public safety, including both foreign and domestic terrorism," the Orlando-based judge said.

In a 16-page ruling, Thorpe declined the request of Sultaana Freeman, a 35-year-old mother of two from Winter Park, Fla., that she be granted a driver's license after being photographed wearing her niqab, a full-face veil that allows only her eyes to show.

During a three-day nonjury trial for her lawsuit held in Orlando last week, Freeman testified that she is a devout Muslim and that exposing her face to strangers or to men from outside her family violates her religious beliefs.

Florida officials countered in Thorpe's court that law enforcement officials need the full-face photos on driver's licenses to quickly and easily verify a person's identity. The judge concurred.

"The state has always had a compelling interest in promoting public safety," Thorpe said. "That interest is served by having the means to accurately and swiftly determine identities."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which had provided Freeman with a lawyer, called Friday's ruling an encroachment on individual liberties that would not make Americans any safer. Freeman's attorney, Howard S. Marks, had said beforehand that he would appeal any verdict against his client.

"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," Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement.

"We're concerned because the government's tendency in the aftermath of September 11 has been to restrict numerous freedoms for the sake of restricting liberty, rather than to make us truly safer," Simon said.

In her decision, Thorpe stressed that Freeman wasn't being "singled out" because she is a Muslim.

"This court would rule the same way for anyone -- Christian, Jew, Buddhist, atheist -- who wished to have his or her driver's license identification photo taken while wearing anything -- ski mask, costume mask, religious veil, hood -- which cloaks all facial features except the eyes," the judge said.

Officials of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles testified that they offered to arrange a special photo session where Freeman could lift her veil while in a closed room with only a female department photographer present. Thorpe said Freeman failed to demonstrate in her lawsuit that accepting this would place a "substantial burden" on her religious freedom.

Freeman, who converted to Islam from Christianity, had a Florida driver's license with a photo showing her clad in her veil, but the document was revoked in January 2002 when she refused to allow a new picture to be taken that would reveal her face.

In documents filed in the suit, the ACLU said at least 15 states have exemptions for drivers who have religious objections to being photographed. The group said that previous court cases in Colorado, Indiana and Nebraska were won by Christians who believe that the Second Commandment, which bars the creation of graven images, prohibits them from having their picture taken.

"The court has basically ruled that when it comes to matters of national security, prior case law does not apply," Randall Marshall, legal director of the ACLU of Florida, said of Thorpe's ruling.

In her decision, the Florida judge rejected some of the legal precedents cited by the ACLU because she said they would restrict law enforcement officials to using "archaic" means of checking a person's identity.

"It remains incumbent upon the state that it seek to protect its citizens with the best available technology," Thorpe said. "The evidence presented shows that photographs and digital images, although not perfect, are still the best available means to make crucial identifications in the shortest possible time."


Virtue reported from Miami, Dahlburg from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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