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Freedom of religion is so central to our nation's identity, it's covered by the First Amendment. It's so crucial, every young student learns about the Pilgrims and how they escaped religious persecution by fleeing England and settling in America. And yet, even now, you don't have to look very far to see or hear about instances of discrimination affecting every type of religion out there. In a case that doesn't seem to be an isolated occurrence, one woman is suing the Ventura County Sheriff's Department for forcing her to remove her hijab after her arrest.
Woman Felt 'Naked and Humiliated'
Jennifer Hyatt, a 44-year-old nurse and Muslim from Newbury Park, was arrested on New Year's Day in 2017 on suspicion of domestic battery after a dispute with her husband. According to her lawsuit, a Ventura County Sheriff's deputy took her head scarf and refused to give it back or provide an alternative covering.
Some Muslim woman adhere to an interpretation of the Koran which requires they cover their heads and most of their bodies out of modesty. Hyatt claims that when she explained that she's a practicing Muslim, a deputy responded, "Not in here, you're not." She says the treatment she received while detained for four hours left her feeling "naked and humiliated."
Federal Law Protects Religious Rights
The deputies' alleged conduct arguably runs afoul of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that protects religious freedom. The RLUIPA prohibits officials from imposing arbitrary or substantial restrictions on religious exercise. Officials must show that a regulation is the least restrictive way to achieve a compelling interest in order to be in compliance with the law.
Hyatt is not the first Muslim woman forced by officers to remove her hijab. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 that Orange County sheriff's deputies violated federal law when they ordered a Muslim woman to remove her head scarf in court. And the city of Long Beach paid a Muslim woman $85,000 after arresting officers forced her to remove her hijab.
Policies and Practices
The competing concern is, of course, safety - suspects could be hiding a weapon. However, many law enforcement agencies have policies in place which instruct officers how to accommodate the religious rights of people they detain, including allowing them to wear garments required by their religious beliefs.
For example, the LAPD's policy allows officers to ask that a person remove their religious garment for a brief search. They then have to either return the garment to them, or provide an alternative. Through her lawsuit, Hyatt hopes to change the practice of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office to be more in line with these types of policies.
If you've suffered religious discrimination, consult an attorney who can help protect your First Amendment Rights.