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Standing Up for Your Faith Could Get You Arrested in Douglasville, Georgia

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Yesterday, I joined Lisa Valentine in front of the Douglasville Municipal Courthouse to announce a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the ACLU of Georgia on her behalf.

This was the same courthouse that Mrs. Valentine attempted to enter in December 2008 to accompany her nephew to his traffic hearing, only to be arrested and jailed for standing up for her right to wear a head covering according to her practice of her Muslim faith. "When we started out for the courthouse that morning, I had no idea I was in for the most humiliating and shocking day of my life," said Mrs. Valentine.

After being informed by an officer that she would have to remove her head covering, Mrs. Valentine attempted to leave the courthouse and expressed her frustration with the policy to the officer. She was prevented from leaving, handcuffed, and taken before the judge who sentenced her to 10 days in jail for contempt of court. Mrs. Valentine was then taken to the booking area, where she was made to remove her head covering. She was detained first at the temporary holding facility at the courthouse and then in jail for several hours without her head covering before police determined that Mrs. Valentine did not fight with officers and that her "actions were primarily verbal and her resistance passive." She was released that evening.

By locking up Mrs. Valentine and forcing her to remove her head covering in public, officers not only showed extreme indifference to her fundamental right to practice her faith, but also humiliated her and caused her unnecessary emotional suffering. For weeks, Mrs. Valentine could not sleep well. She felt deeply hurt and ashamed by the experience. "To be forced by someone else to remove my hijab in public was humiliating, and a serious violation of my privacy, modesty, and right to practice my faith," said Mrs. Valentine.

In July 2009, the Georgia Judicial Council adopted a policy clarifying that religious head coverings can be worn in Georgia courthouses. The policy, which balances courts' security concerns with individuals' fundamental right to religious liberty, was presented by the ACLU of Georgia to the Supreme Court of Georgia Committee on Access and Fairness in the Courts at a June 2009 meeting. Mrs. Valentine was there to testify about the experience she faced at the Douglasville courthouse. But the policy serves as a recommendation to courthouses, and is not binding. The lawsuit we brought yesterday against the City of Douglasville and the arresting officers charges that Mrs. Valentine's First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated, and asks the court to ensure that religious head coverings will be allowed in the Douglasville courthouse.

"I hope that no person of faith will ever have to experience the type of egregious treatment I suffered at any Georgia courthouse because of the expression of my beliefs," Mrs. Valentine said yesterday. We hope so as well. It is outrageous enough for the government to hamper people's free exercise of religion. Arresting and unlawfully jailing Americans for standing up for the right to practice their faith further violates the fundamental tenets of our democracy.

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