Mujaahidah Sayfullah ducked into Tacoma Municipal Court on Jan. 25, 2006, trying not to be noticed.

That hasn’t been an easy feat ever since the Puyallup resident converted to Islam in 2001. Her hijab, or traditional Muslim head scarf, inevitably attracts attention, often the wrong kind.

Reactions run the gamut – from name-calling and horn-honking to the palpable recoil Sayfullah, a real estate agent, sees on the faces of some clients meeting her in person for the first time.

It’s not an experience she wants to visit on her loved ones, many of whom are not Muslim. So on that day last year when she went to court to support a young relative facing a misdemeanor charge, she kept her distance in the courtroom, slipping into the back row behind a tall man.

She might as well have saved herself the bother. Before the docket even got under way, Sayfullah had again attracted unwanted attention. This time, it came from an unexpected source: the judge, who told Sayfullah she would have to remove the scarf or leave.

The ultimatum dumbfounded Sayfullah. Americans – Sayfullah is a citizen by birth with six years of military service – don’t expect to have to defend such a simple religious practice, at least not from the government.

Many of us leave the house every day wearing symbols of our faith – a crucifix pendant, a yarmulke, a nun’s habit, a Hindu bindi – without a second thought. Sayfullah even had worn her hijab to jury service in two other Pierce County cases without incident. . .

But Tacoma Municipal Court Judge David Ladenburg wasn’t thinking about constitutional issues last year when he told Sayfullah that she would have to remove her hijab in his courtroom. He was concerned with enforcing court decorum. As just about any lawyer will tell his client, you don’t show up for court wearing a tank top, flip-flops or a hat. To Ladenburg, Sayfullah’s hijab was just another head covering. As he told the courtroom after she left, no one had ever proved to him that the Muslim faith forbids removal of a head scarf in public.

That was news to Sayfullah. “To me, taking off my hijab would be like asking someone else to take off their clothes. I would feel naked, humiliated. The purpose is to protect my morals, my ethics, my modesty.”

Ladenburg erred by substituting his interpretation of religious doctrine for Sayfullah’s; he admitted as much almost immediately. After a Muslim advocacy group filed a complaint on Sayfullah’s behalf, the judge publicly apologized and accepted an admonishment from the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct. “I have always tried to honor all the constitutional freedoms,” Ladenburg says. “My mistake was not inquiring further” about Sayfullah’s reasons for wearing the hijab.

The case prompted Tacoma Municipal Court to establish a policy that no one should be excluded from a courtroom because of attire worn for religious or medical reasons.


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