Can Airlines Force Passengers to Remove Religious Clothing?

Can Airlines Force Passengers to Remove Religious Clothing?
By Richard Dahl on October 02, 2019 3:00 PM

Twelve-year-old Fatima Abdelrahman was preparing to board a flight recently when an airline employee told her she had to remove her hijab, a religious head scarf worn by Muslim women.

Abdelrahman and her teammates on the U.S. Squash Junior National Team had passed through security at San Francisco International Airport and were waiting at the gate to board an Air Canada flight to Toronto for a tournament when a boarding agent separated Abdelrahman from the group.

At first, she refused the agent's demands that she remove the hijab because she wears it for religious purposes. The agent, however, was insistent, so Abdelrahman gave in. But instead of complying with her request that it be done in private, away from men, a female agent led her to a nearby area where people could still see her.

Abdelrahman rejoined her teammates and they continued their trip to Canada. But she was upset and texted her family about the incident. When her family complained to Air Canada, the airline said they were merely complying with Canadian laws and regulations requiring airlines to compare a traveler's entire face with the photo on their travel identification document.

In Abdelrahman's case, the document photo was taken when she was 9, before she began wearing hijabs. Furthermore, hijabs don't cover the face.

The San Francisco chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a formal complaint against Air Canada on behalf of the family, which is seeking monetary damages for emotional pain and suffering.

A Question of Facial Visibility

The incident does sound like a case of communications breakdown within the airline. HuffPost Canada reported on Sept. 29 that "other airlines as well as the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority told HuffPost Canada that headwear would not normally be removed if a passenger's full face was visible."

That much is clear. But how far can an airline or travel security agency go in forcing passengers to remove religious clothing?

In the U.S., the Transportation Security Administration says that "(p)ersons wearing head coverings, loose fitting or bulky garments may undergo additional security screening, which may include a pat-down … conducted by a TSA officer of the same gender. If an alarm cannot be resolved through a pat-down, you may ask to remove the head covering in a private screening area."

But airlines can take additional steps after a passenger goes through security, as Air Canada did with Fatima Abdelrahman.

Airlines Have Great Latitude

When it comes to clothing per se, airlines have widely varying policies and great latitude. Airline employees can make unilateral decisions on what is allowable and what is not, and sometimes their decisions make headlines. In 2017, for example, United Airlines drew criticism for not allowing two teenage girls wearing leggings to fly from Denver to Minneapolis.

Sometimes those decisions rise to the level of discrimination, as CAIR is arguing in the Abdelrahman case. In 2016, Indian-American actor Waris Ahluwahlia was barred from boarding an Aeromexico flight for wearing a turban. In 2009, an Iraqi-born U.S. resident was forced by a JetBlue Airways agent in New York to cover a T-shirt that said, "We Will Not Be Silent," in both English and Arabic because it would frighten passengers. (The man subsequently filed a discrimination suit and received a $240,000 settlement payment.)

So the short answer to the question is: Yes, airlines are free to make demands of passengers based on their clothing.

But passengers are also free to sue.

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