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Woman sues, claims judge forced her to remove hijab

  • Story Highlights
  • Lawsuit claims naturalized citizen was forced to remove religious head covering
  • American-Islamic relations group seeks order declaring the action unconstitutional
  • Judge: Woman didn't protest, never said it was a religious garment
By Taylor Gandossy
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(CNN) -- A Muslim woman and the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations sued a judge Wednesday for allegedly ordering the woman to remove her hijab, or religious head covering, in court.

Raneen Albaghdady, of Wayne County, Michigan, contends that Judge William Callahan told her to remove her hijab on June 16 when she was petitioning for a name change, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in a U.S. district court in Michigan.

Wayne County is also listed as a defendant in the suit.

Callahan and the 3rd Circuit Court of Michigan said in a written statement that they had not seen the complaint and could not comment on the lawsuit.

However, they said that Albaghdady did not object to removing her head covering and that she had not informed the judge that she wore it for religious reasons.

The lawsuit says Callahan "insisted" that Albaghdady, a naturalized citizen, remove her hijab and that she eventually complied.

It says the judge denied Albaghdady's petition for a name change, saying that she had filed her petition five days too early. No further details were offered.

The lawsuit seeks an order declaring the practice of "forcing Muslim women to remove their hijab as a precondition to appearing in court" unconstitutional and illegal. It asks that the judge and Wayne County not be allowed to "take similar unconstitutional actions."

The Michigan Islamic relations council released a partial video of the incident Tuesday on YouTube. In the 30-second video, the judge can be heard saying, "The head piece? No hats allowed in the courtroom."

The statement from Callahan and the 3rd Circuit said that the YouTube video was "missing some critical footage."

"In response to Judge Callahan's direction, 'No hats allowed in the courtroom,' Ms. Albaghdady responded, "Okay, it doesn't matter,' and immediately removed her head covering, without protest or explanation," the statement said.

"Judge Callahan and the court have the greatest respect for spiritual practices and all religious preferences. Had he been informed that the head covering had some religious significance, the judge would have permitted Ms. Albaghdady to continue wearing it in court," it said.

The suit comes a day after the state's Supreme Court issued an order allowing lower state courts to "exercise reasonable control" over the appearance of witnesses and parties to lawsuits, a rule change that had been proposed after a Muslim woman refused to remove an Islamic garment in a small claims court.

The order allows courts "reasonable control over the appearance of parties and witnesses" so as to "ensure that the demeanor of such persons may be observed and assessed by the fact-finder and ensure the accurate identification of such person."

The order, which amends a rule of the Michigan Rules of Evidence, is effective September 1. The justices had voted earlier this summer to change it.

The amendment was prompted by a 2006 small claims case in Michigan filed by Ginnah Muhammad, who wore a niqab -- a garment that covers the entire face and head, except for the eyes -- to court, the order said.

The judge asked her to remove her niqab, saying he needed to be able to see her face to tell whether she was telling the truth, according to court documents.

Muhammad refused, saying she was a practicing Muslim and would take off the veil only in front of a female judge.

The judge said a female judge was not available and told Muhammad she could remove the niqab or have her case dismissed. She chose the latter, according to court documents.

She sued the judge in federal district court, which declined to exercise jurisdiction over the case. Muhammad has since appealed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to court documents.

Michigan is home to about 600,000 Muslims, and close to 500,000 live in the southeastern part of the state, according to the Michigan office of the American-Islamic relations council.

The Detroit area, in Wayne County, ranks fifth nationwide for the number of Muslims, it said.

Last month, the Judicial Council of Georgia adopted a policy allowing religious head coverings in the state's courtrooms.

Daniel Mach, the director of litigation for the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said Wednesday the issue has "come up in a variety of states."

"We are concerned about the growing number of incidents restricting religious expression in the courtroom," he said. "... This is an issue that affects a variety of religious faiths and others."

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