A federal lawsuit filed this week alleges that an Alabama woman’s Christian beliefs were violated when she had to remove a headscarf in order to take a driver’s license photo.
The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Alabama, charges that officials in Lee County violated Tuskegee resident Yvonne Allen’s First Amendment rights. The complaint asks that Allen be allowed to retake the photo with her headscarf on and to receive damages and attorney fees.
Contacted by AMI Newswire Wednesday, one of the defendants, Judge Bill English, said he had not yet been served with court papers and would not comment on the case. English is responsible for the administration of the county office that issues driver’s licenses.
“I am not going to discuss any of the issues in this until I have discussed it with counsel,” English said.
Although English wouldn’t comment on the state’s driver’s license photo policy, AMI obtained a copy of it from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. The policy changed in 2004, to allow certain head coverings to be worn for medical or religious reasons.
“The head of the applicant shall be shown from the top of the forehead to the bottom of the chin and from hairline side-to-side …” the state policy says. “Head coverings and headgear are only acceptable due to religious beliefs or medical conditions, and even then, may not obscure any portion of the applicant’s face.”
The policy emphasizes that any headgear that is not religious in nature is not allowed.
Allen considers herself a devout Christian, and she says that her Christian faith requires her to wear a headscarf when in public. She bases her views on a passage in 1 Corinthians of the New Testament, according to a blog post she wrote on the ACLU’s website.
“I was devastated when they forced me to remove my headscarf to take my driver license photo,” Allen said in a prepared statement this week. “Revealing my hair to others is disobedient to God. I should have the same right as people of other faiths to be accommodated for my religious beliefs.”
The clerk Allen dealt with when she visited the driver license office in Auburn on Dec. 29, 2015, as well as the clerk’s superior, told her that only Muslim women have the right to take a driver’s license photo with a head covering, according to the lawsuit.
Though she felt ashamed, Allen decided to take the photo with her headscarf removed because she has to drive on a daily basis, including traveling to work and taking her children to school, the lawsuit said.
“With tears in my eyes and utter disgust in my belly, I took the picture,” Allen said in her blog post.
Now she feels burdened by having to show the driver’s license regularly for identification, according to the lawsuit. The complaint also alleges that the driver license office staff derided Allen’s religious beliefs, with one clerk remarking that she was a Christian as well and saw no reason to cover her hair.
The Alabama policy on driver’s license photos does not differentiate among religions, and it is similar to policies in more than 40 other states. The policy complies with standards described in the U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual, according to a 2004 Alabama press release.
An Associated Press story published when the new Alabama policy was adopted quotes state officials as saying that the policy would also respect the beliefs and traditions of non-Muslims, including Sikhs and Roman Catholic nuns.
“The county’s interpretation of state rules blatantly violates the First Amendment,” said Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU in Alabama, in a prepared statement. “The government cannot discriminate between faiths in granting religious accommodations.”
The ACLU said several communications were sent to Probate Court officials seeking to avoid a lawsuit over Allen's situation, but they went unanswered.