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Woman sues Florida over driver's license dispute

Discussion /

May 29, 2003 Posted: 2:37 AM EDT (0637 GMT)
Sultanna Freeman
Sultanna Freeman  

In refusing to remove her veil for her driver's license photograph, a woman in Florida has stirred a controversy that has civil rights advocates and state officials butting heads. Though Sultaana Freeman says her religious beliefs require her to wear the veil in public, the state of Florida has refused to issue her a driver's license without a photograph of her entire face.

Freeman's attorneys say the case is all about religious freedom. "I don't think there is any mistake about that - it's about whether or not in this country, we're going to allow the religious diversity we've had for years," said Howard Marks of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU is representing Freeman in her case against Florida.

Freeman wants to have the right to hold a Florida driver's license showing only her eyes - the only part of her face visible beneath her niqab, or veil.

A Muslim-American advocacy group says Freeman's belief is not a mandatory (required) part of her religion, but the group does support her position. "She sincerely feels that this is something, this is going to advance her piety and her sense of modesty," said Altaf Ali of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., Freeman held a valid driver's license showing her wearing her veil. However, the state of Florida said that, after the September 11 attacks, her license would have to show her entire face. The state cited safety and security reasons for its decision. When Freeman failed to renew her license with a full facial photograph, Florida took away her driving privileges.

But Howard Simon of the ACLU asked, "How is it going to make us any safer to prevent this woman from driving her kids to the doctor or to go grocery shopping without a license - by requiring her to take off her veil?"

Florida authorities say that driving is a privilege and not a right. "There's a clear law enforcement purpose" for Florida's decision, said Jason Vail, the Florida assistant attorney general handling the case.

Freeman said Florida's decision has "put a great deal of stress" on her. She added, "It's totally changed my life, and I really feel like a prisoner in my own home a lot of the time."

Some states, including Illinois, Idaho, and Vermont, allow members of certain religious groups to acquire a license without a photograph. And Florida does not require a picture on a temporary driving permit.

Freeman's trial is expected to last a few days. A judge will make the final decision about whether she will be allowed to acquire a license without a full facial photograph.

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