Muslim woman's headscarf incident prompts ACLU lawsuit

Two years ago at the Douglasville Municipal Court, Lisa Valentine was jailed after refusing to remove a headscarf she wore as an expression of her Islamic beliefs.

On Tuesday, Valentine returned to the courthouse to announce she was filing a federal lawsuit against the city and the officers who arrested her.

"It's an important day; it's the start of change," said Valentine, a 43-year-old African-American woman who converted from Christianity to Islam 14 years ago. "These policies have to change."

Valentine unwittingly sparked a controversy when she wore a traditional Muslim headscarf known as a hijab on Dec. 16, 2008 while attempting to accompany her then 19-year-old nephew to traffic court in Douglasville.

Municipal Court Judge Keith Rollins ordered her arrested and jailed for 10 days for contempt of court when she refused to remove her hijab at the security station, protested aloud and tried to leave. Valentine was released later the same day after senior staff members of the police department met with the judge and determined her resistance was passive.

Assistant Chief Gary Sparks of the Douglasville Police Department referred questions about the lawsuit to the city attorney, who did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday. Rollins also did not return a reporter's call to his office Tuesday.

Valentine's cause was taken up by organizations such as the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League, who expressed concern about restriction of religious freedoms and discrimination against Muslims following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Muslim Americans after 9/11 have experienced all types of discrimination and increasing governmental crackdown," said Azadeh Shahshahani of the ACLU of Georgia. "All these types of discrimination are a huge concern to the ACLU. When it comes to the religious diversity, every American should have the right to practice their faith free from government intrusion."

Valentine's case prompted reform in July 2009 when the Georgia Judicial Council, the policy-making body of Georgia courts, adopted a recommendation that clarified that religious head coverings can be worn in Georgia courthouses. If it becomes necessary to search someone wearing a head covering, the council recommended that such inspections be performed by an officer of the same sex in a private area.

The American Civil Liberties Union and its Georgia chapter, which filed the lawsuit on Valentine's behalf, is seeking unspecified damages to compensate Valentine for alleged emotional suffering and violation of her constitutional rights. They are also asking the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to command the Douglasville Municipal Court to adopt the recommendation.

"As far as we know, they have not adopted the policy," Shahshahani said.

Valentine said her arrest, during which time she was forced to remove the hijab while in a holding cell, on a bus with male inmates and at the Douglas County jail, was "very traumatic."

"This was part of my religious adherence to be covered in public and at home if you have visitors," Valentine said. "This is a part of my covering, my modesty, just like my top. I wouldn't go out without a shirt on. It's the same thing as not wearing my head covering."