VALDOSTA ­ A Muslim woman seeking to contest a simple speeding ticket was denied access to the Valdosta courtroom of Municipal Court Judge Vernita Lee Bender because she was wearing a traditional Islamic head scarf.

The day of her hearing, 20-year-old Aniisa Karim said she walked in the front doors of the Municipal Court building and was told that she would not be permitted to enter the courtroom with her scarf on even after she explained to the security officer that she is not permitted by her religion to remove the scarf in public. Karim said the officer called for his lieutenant, who affirmed the decision that Karim would be barred from the courtroom unless her scarf was removed.

“I said, ‘No, I’m Muslim, and like I told (the first officer) I wear this for religious reasons and if you don’t allow me in the courtroom with my scarf on basically you are violating my civil rights and my right to a free religion because this is my religion,’” Karim said.

Karim said one of the officers told her that the denial of entry to the courtroom was due to “homeland security reasons” and that allowing her to enter would show “disrespect” to the judge, though Karim offered to walk through the metal detectors and allow the officers utilize the handheld metal detector to scan the scarf.

Karim said she asked the officers what she was supposed to do about her ticket since she was not removing the scarf in public. The officers then called out a court clerk who told Karim that she would be permitted to reschedule her hearing for a future date, though she would still not be permitted to wear her scarf into the courtroom at that time.

According to Karim, her only option was to plead nolo contendere and pay the $168 fine since that process could be completed in the lobby without entering the courtroom. . .

Following the advice of a family friend who is an attorney and also Muslim, Karim contacted the Council of American-Islamic Relations, a prominent national Islamic civil rights and advocacy group.

In response to Karim’s story, the Washington-based group wrote a letter to Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker which stated, “We assert that Judge Bender’s actions violated the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct, which states: ‘Judges shall perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice. Judges shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, including but not limited to bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status, and shall not permit staff, court officials and others to subject to judicial direction and control to do so.’”

CAIR added that under Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the courtroom should be considered a “public facility” and denial of access to the courtroom based on religious beliefs or practices is therefore discriminatory.

“In addition, we believe Judge Bender’s actions are in violation of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freedom of religion and equal protection under the law. Two state supreme courts have ruled that government must show compelling state interest in preventing religious head coverings in a courtroom. Obviously, we believe that no such compelling interest exists in this case,” CAIR stated in the letter.

CAIR requested that Baker “take appropriate action to ensure that the legal, religious and civil rights of Georgians of all faiths be maintained.” The group also asked for a formal apology from Bender and a written assurance that Karim and all others wearing religious attire be allowed in her courtroom.

“I feel like in the year 2007 things like this should not happen any more,” Karim said. “Of course everyone doesn’t know everything about different religions, but if I tell you, ‘I’m Muslim this is a part of my religion,’ I feel like if you are a public officer you should be educated enough to know.”


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