Last month, Sultaana Freeman sued the state’s highway-safety department after it suspended her driver’s license because Ms. Freeman had worn a niqab -- a full veil covering all but the eyes — in the license photo. A Veiled Threat

Where on Earth is Larry Ellison when you need him?

If the over-hyped, oft-maligned founder of Oracle can save the world from terrorism through biometric, "smart ID card" technologies that capture data on everything from DNA and fingerprints to unsightly mole hair, surely he can convince a Muslim-convert in Winter Park, Florida to lift her veil for a driver’s license photo.

Last month, Sultaana Freeman sued the state’s highway-safety department after it suspended her driver’s license because Ms. Freeman had worn a niqab -- a full veil covering all but the eyes -- in the license photo. According to Freeman, her Islamic beliefs require her to shield her face in public. However, the state argues it has a "compelling governmental interest" in requiring full-face license photos in order to clearly identify individuals and better protect the public’s safety, which is more important than ever in the wake of 9-11.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Ms. Freeman is a 34-year old former Pentecostal from the Midwest who converted to Islam five years ago with her husband. Her lawsuit is being supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to the ACLU, the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act guarantees Ms. Freeman’s right to cover her face in the license photo. The Act broadly defines the exercise of religion as "an act or refusal to act that is substantially motivated by a religious belief, whether or not the religious exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious beliefs." The law requires the government to prove a "compelling government interest" before "substantially" burdening such religious exercise.

Despite the state’s attempts to have Freeman’s suit thrown out, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has agreed to let the case proceed, setting the stage for a landmark decision with implications for nearly a dozen other states’ religious freedom laws.

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court in Dept. of Human Resources v. Smith ruled that the federal government did not have to justify laws that interfered with religious practices, so long as the laws were neutral and were equally applied to everyone. Congress countered with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to re-establish the burden on the government to show a "compelling interest."

In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down that law as it applied to the states. In response, state legislatures, such as Florida, passed their own "religious freedom" statutes, mirroring the federal Act. Many of these laws haven’t, as of yet, been thoroughly challenged in the courts. The Freeman case presents an opportunity for both sides to argue the merits of the state legislation.

It is ironic that in the midst of ongoing investigations over security lapses which allowed some of the 9-11 hijackers to obtain state drivers licenses, the courts may open the door to a whole new security nightmare for law enforcement officials.

A decision in favor of niqab wearers could lead to equal protection of Burhka wearers, as well as other religions claiming special privileges. Already, there are two federal court decisions upholding the rights of Pentecostal individuals in Nebraska and Colorado to obtain driver’s licenses without photos, based on their belief in the Bible’s commandment "Thou Shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness."

In fact, if Freeman is successful, we imagine there may be at least a few angry Mormon men looking to get their extra wives back, or some Native Americans looking to re-test the Supreme Court’s negative views on peyote usage. There is no telling where this all might end.

Perhaps we should take a cue from Russia, suggests Thomas Faustini Baku in a May 17, 2002 letter to The Record (Bergen County, NJ). Mr. Baku, who works for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, points out that every predominantly Muslim republic that is a member of the Russian Federation must adhere to the uncovering of women’s heads when taking a passport photo.

"I look at Chechen women’s passports every day, and I have never seen a deviation," wrote Mr. Baku. "The Russian government would never sell out the Russian people to the risks and dangers of political correctness."

May 30, 2002
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