Religious discrimination in the courtroom is very disheartening to many people of faith. One recent example here in Michigan is that of Ginnah Muhammad, a Muslim woman whose small claims court case in nearby Hamtramck was dismissed because she refused to remove her veil while testifying. The judge’s refusal to hear Muhammad’s case violated her freedom of religion and demonstrated the discrimination Muslims frequently face in the courtroom — a discrimination that needs to end.
Muhammad wears the niqab — a veil that covers her face from the nose down — in daily life as part of her religious practice. The judge presiding over the suit, District Judge Paul Paruk, stated that he needed to see Muhammad’s face while she was testifying to be able to see whether she was telling the truth. When she refused, Paruk dismissed her case.
In response to the dismissal, Muhammad sued Paruk in federal court, alleging a violation of her First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. The federal court dismissed the case, stating that the state courts should handle the issue. Based on this ruling, Michigan’s Supreme Court proposed allowing state judges leeway on the issue of dress in the courtroom. It has delayed a vote on the change until its next administrative conference on June 17.
In two past United States Supreme Court case decisions, Sherbert v. Verner and Wisconsin v. Yoder, the court decided that there must be a “compelling interest” to override people’s right to practice their religion. In the first case, the Supreme Court held that there was no compelling state interest that justified the withholding of unemployment compensation to a woman who was fired from her job for refusing to work on Saturday on religious grounds. In the latter case, Amish parents refused to send their children to public school after the age of 16. The Supreme Court unanimously held that the free exercise of religion outweighed the state’s interest in compelling school attendance.
Muhammad’s case is no different. There wasn’t a compelling state interest in Muhammad taking off her veil. Paruk did not even show consideration to other options that would be less burdensome, such as permitting Muhammad to appear before a female judge, for whom she would be able to remove her veil.
Paruk blew this case completely out of proportion. One would assume that the most important factor in a case is the testimony given and the facts presented, not the demeanor of a testifier’s face. This kind of evidence is subjective, and Paruk probably could not have determined Muhammad’s honesty just by seeing her face. Besides, Muhammad’s eyes — usually considered the most expressive part of the face — were already showing. The benefit that Paruk could have gotten from judging the demeanor of Muhammad’s mouth and nose could not have been enough of a compelling state interest to justify overriding her right to free religious exercise.
On a more dismaying note, Paruk seemed dismissive of Muhammad’s religious beliefs as a Muslim, informing her that her decision to not remove the veil wasn’t a “religious thing” but a “cultural thing.” For Paruk to downplay her religious beliefs and amount them to a simple cultural choice is an insult to Muslim women everywhere who choose to wear the niqab as part of their Islamic religion.
This is one of many instances in which Muslims have faced religious discrimination. The appearance of Muslims in religious clothing has been used to push the idea that Muslims aren’t real Americans. Steps need to be taken to ensure equal treatment of people of all religions, especially in the courtroom. Religious discrimination does exist, but the courts should be a place where this discrimination is ended, not abetted.
Aalaa Albaroudi is an LSA senior.