Culture clash: Diversity vs. security rules

(Editor's note: This story was published in 2008.)

Lisa Valentine shed her Baptist beliefs 11 years ago and adopted a faith she felt wholly served her: Islam.

She was no longer Lisa, but Miedah. She studied the Quran and donned a head covering, or hijab, because Islam mandates modesty for women.

She had not uncovered her head in a public place, in front of men she did not know --- until Tuesday, when she was taken to jail and forced to take off the pants, blouse and printed green and beige scarf she was wearing in exchange for a prison jumpsuit.

Douglasville Municipal Court Judge Keith Rollins had held Valentine in contempt of court after she refused to remove her scarf outside his courtroom, then uttered an expletive.

The incident attracted the attention of civil liberties groups and reignited debate on religious rights vs. security, an issue that took center stage after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Many followers of several religions wear head coverings, including Islam, Sikhism and Judaism.

"In light of Georgia's growing religious diversity, we urge the court system to thoroughly examine this issue and develop uniform standards on religious accommodation in the courtroom, " the Anti-Defamation League said in a letter to Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Sears.

The Douglasville incident was not the first in Georgia.

Last year, Aniisa Karim, a Muslim, was barred from a Valdosta court unless she took off her scarf. In Lawrenceville, Jasmeen Singh Nanda, a Sikh, was told he could not address his traffic violation in court until he removed his turban.

Rabbi Binyomin Friedman of Congregation Ariel in Dunwoody said he has been asked to remove his kipa, a skullcap also known as a yarmulke, when entering a courtroom.

While Orthodox Jewish men wear kipas because of custom, women cover their heads as a matter of decency. For those women to uncover their heads, Friedman said, would be equivalent to disrobing.

"It would be embarrassing to be exposed like that, " he said. "We always try to respect and defer to government agencies unless they're asking us to violate traditions."

Disputes over religious attire have sprung up across the nation, not just in courts of law but on basketball courts and even at swimming pools, where athletes insisted on meeting religious requirements.

"It's an important issue, " said former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, a lawyer who was the Libertarian candidate for president this year. "I think the policy ought to be that in America, a person has every right to enter a courtroom and the court ought to prevent that [only] for extraordinary reasons."

Valentine, 41, had gone to the Douglasville Municipal Court on Tuesday morning to accompany her 19-year-old nephew to settle a citation. She said she was stopped at the metal detector and told she could not go through without removing her hijab because court policy prohibited headgear of all sorts.

Valentine told the bailiff she could not take off the scarf because of her faith. She used an expletive as she turned to leave.

That's when she was handcuffed and taken in front of the judge, who ordered her to spend 10 days in jail. It's unclear why she was released later that night.

Repeated phone calls to the judge were not returned. Douglasville Mayor Mickey Thompson said the city was "gathering information" on what happened.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia urged Douglasville to reconsider its policies.

That's what Lawrenceville officials did in March 2007 after Nanda, the Sikh man, sought counsel from the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington.

Police Chief Randy Johnson said Lawrenceville told its security personnel that people wearing religious attire would be allowed through the metal detector. If they failed, they would be subject to a security wand.

Johnson said if a person is still suspect, he or she might be asked to remove the headgear, or security personnel may notify the judge about the problem.

No procedure was outlined before the banning of Nanda, to whom city officials later apologized.

In DeKalb County, Sheriff Thomas Brown said all visitors to the courthouse go through metal detectors and are scanned by a wand if they set off the first device. But once inside the courtroom, judges hold sway.

"Any time you're in a courtroom, a judge can impose, I guess you can call it a dress code, " Brown said.

U.S. Marshal Richard Mecum of the Northern District of Georgia said "there's a certain courtroom decorum --- with some judges it's you take off your hat.

"It's each judge's bailiwick, " he said. "They carry a lot of weight."

A brochure for the public published on the Web site of Georgia's Council of Municipal Court Judges lists items that shouldn't be worn into a courtroom. Among them are ripped jeans, baggy pants, sunglasses and T-shirts depicting profanity, sex or violence. The brochure says hats should be taken off, "except those worn for religious purposes."

Judges must abide by the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct, a manual approved by the state Supreme Court. Canon 3, Section B5 prohibits judges from executing any kind of bias based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socio-economic status. "Judges who manifest bias on any basis in a proceeding impair the fairness of the proceeding and bring the judiciary into disrepute, " it says.

Each jurisdiction can set its own rules and regulations for courtroom decorum and security, said Steve Jones, former chairman of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the panel that hears complaints about judges. But courtroom policies must meet the requirements of state law, Jones said.

Some Americans, especially after Sept. 11, felt laws were too accommodating to minority religions and that everyone should follow the same rules and regulations, no matter what their religion.

Azadeh Shahshahani, who specializes in national security and immigrants' rights issues for the ACLU Foundation of Georgia, said the Constitution recognizes the separation of church and state but Valentine's case presents a different issue.

"Our Constitution places great emphasis on the freedom to practice one's religion without any interference from the government."

Staff writer Bill Torpy contributed to this article.