US hijab cases test breadth of religious freedom

US police officer loses battle to wear hijab, ID bill dropped


A Philadelphia police officer lost a battle to wear her Muslim head scarf to work as a Nevada state school paid to settle Wednesday a civil rights case involving harassment of a Muslim girl just days after a controversial Oklahoma bill prohibiting wearing a head covering in driver's license photos was dismissed by state senators as a constitutional violation.

A flurry of cases across the country have pitted religious freedom against debates about public safety, with uneven results.

Religious neutrality

On Wednesday a Muslim police officer in Philadelphia lost her appeal in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to be able to wear her hijab on the job because the judge said the ability of the police to maintain “religious neutrality” would be compromised and affect the proper functioning of the force.

The department’s policy prohibits officers from wearing any religious garb and therefore did not violate Kimberlie Webb’s religious-freedom rights and allowing her to wear the hijab would impose “undue hardship” on the department.

Bill dropped

Half-way across the country the Oklahoma legislature dropped a proposed bill to prohibit people from wearing head covering in drivers licence photos because it conflicted with permitted religious exemptions and constituents said it violated First Ammendement rights.

"We thank Oklahoma lawmakers for their leadership and courage in standing up for religious pluralism and the First Amendment," Razi Hashmi, Council on American Islamic Relations - Oklahoma executive director, said in a statement issued Tuesday. Some 600 letters opposing the draft legislation were sent to lawmakers by Oklahomans of all faiths.

Oklahoma Muslims and Sikhs opposed the bill saying it violated their religious practices and was unconstitutional.

CAIR said the bill offended all faith-based communities who believe covering their heads is part of their religion. It would have prohibited wearing anything that blocked the view of a person’s heads or shoulders in a license photo, including headscarves worn by Muslim women, turbans worn by Sikhs and the habit worn by Catholic nuns.

According to a 2004 CAIR review, most states -- with the exception of Georgia, Kentucky and New Hampshire -- have addressed religious accommodation concerns. Five states -- Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas, Missouri and Maine -- recognize some religious practices, while the other 42 states have adopted more inclusive approaches to religious accommodation policies.

We thank Oklahoma lawmakers for their leadership and courage in standing up for religious pluralism and the First Amendment

Razi Hashmi, CAIR-OK

School harassment settles

Also on Wednesday on the other side of the county a Nevada school district agreed to pay $400,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit brought by a veiled Muslim girl after she was forced to drop out of school because she was harassed.

Jana Elhifny will receive $350,000 while her friend Stephanie Hart, a non-Muslim who was harassed for befriending Elhifny at the North Valleys High School, will receive $50,000.

Elhifny, who came to Reno from Egypt with her family in 2003, allegedly faced death threats and harassment and said in the lawsuit that school administrators failed to deal with the situation.

The district also agreed to work with lawyers on harassment and discrimination policies.