Douglasville has settled a federal lawsuit brought by a woman who was jailed over her Muslim headscarf.
“We think it’s a significant victory for religious freedom,” Azadeh Shahshahani, one of the attorneys representing Lisa Valentine in the case, told the AJC in a phone interview Friday.
“Obviously the manner in which Ms. Valentine was treated was inexcusable and unconstitutional,” said Shahshahani, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “We hope that through this settlement, no other people will be subject to this same humiliating treatment Ms. Valentine had to suffer.”
Douglasville agreed to adopt a new court screening policy that allows people with religious head coverings the option of being screened in a private area by a person of the same gender, the ACLU said in a news release. Persons with religious headgear will not be forced to remove them in public and can wear the coverings in court.
That policy mirrors a nonbinding recommendation to local courts made in July 2009 by the Georgia Judicial Council after widespread news reports of the Valentine incident.
“I hope that no person of faith will ever have to experience the type of egregious treatment I suffered at any Georgia courthouse because of the expression of my beliefs,” Valentine said in the news release.
Efforts were being made Friday afternoon to reach a Douglasville city official for comment.
Valentine, an African-American woman who converted from Christianity to Islam about 15 years ago, was jailed on Dec. 16, 2008 after she wore a Muslim head scarf known as a hijab while accompanying her nephew to Traffic Court in Douglasville.
When a guard at a court security station told Valentine to remove her headgear, the woman refused, protested aloud and tried to leave. But Municipal Court Judge Keith Rollins ordered the woman arrested and jailed for 10 days for contempt of court.
Valentine was released later that day.
In December, Valentine – represented by the national ACLU and its Georgia chapter and the law firm of Carlton Fields – filed suit in U.S. District Court, Atlanta. The suit accused Douglasville and the officers who arrested Valentine of violating her constitutional rights as well as her rights under federal law.
While the ACLU hopes all Georgia courts will adopt the Judicial Council’s recommended policy, “unfortunately, we continue to receive complaints about people being denied access to courthouses because of the religious headgear they are wearing,” Shahshahani said.
The most recent incident occurred in May in Henry County, when a state judge refused to allow a Muslim man to wear a head covering, a tight-fitting cap called a kufi, in traffic court. The judge later reversed his decision.
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