Originally created 05/29/03

Muslim woman wants to keep on veil for license photo



ORLANDO, Fla. -- Florida's refusal to issue a driver's license to a Muslim woman unless she is photographed without her veil violates her religious rights, an ACLU attorney argued in court Tuesday.

The requirement by the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is a burden on Saltaana Freeman, a 35-year-old convert to Islam whose religious beliefs require her to keep her head and face covered out of modesty, said Howard Marks, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

"This is about religious liberty. It's about whether this country is going to have religious diversity," said Marks at the beginning of Freeman's nonjury trial. "Allowing the state to chip away at religious liberties is not a path we want to go down."

But Assistant Attorney General Jason Vail argued that having an easily identifiable photo on a driver's license was a matter of public safety since the photos are used during traffic stops, in financial transactions and to prevent identity fraud. Vail said there are limits to the religious liberties extended in the Florida Constitution if public safety is at stake.

"It's the primary method of identification in Florida and the nation," Vail said of the driver's license. "I don't think there can be any doubt there is a public safety interest."

Circuit Judge Janet C. Thorpe must decide whether taking the photo would violate Freeman's religious beliefs and if the state has a compelling interest in not allowing her to obtain a license with her covered face in a photo.

In February 2001, Freeman obtained a Florida driver's license that had a photo of her face covered in a veil, but she received a letter from the state nine months later warning that it would revoke her license unless she returned for a photo with her face uncovered.

She refused and sued for the right to get a driver's license with a photo showing her face uncovered.

Her attorneys argued that state officials didn't care that she wore a veil in the photo until after the Sept. 11 attacks, an allegation denied by attorneys for the state.

Both sides planned to call experts in Islamic law and both tables in the courtroom had copies of the Quran within easy reach.