Under an agreement just reached by the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU/SC) and the County of Orange, the county will no longer require observant Muslim women in Orange County Sheriff’s Department custody to remove religious head coverings in full view of male officers, and will provide temporary headscarves for them to wear while they are in custody.
“I praise Allah and thank Him that I live in a country where I can practice my religion freely,” said plaintiff Souhair Khatib. “While not everyone understands Islam or what it requires of me, I’m grateful that the U.S. government protects my right to fulfill my duty to Allah, whether at work, on a public street or, yes, even in a sheriff’s holding facility.”
The ACLU/SC and the law firm of Troutman Sanders LLP sued the county in 2007 on behalf of Khatib, a devout Muslim woman who had her probation on a misdemeanor charge temporarily revoked when she appeared in court to ask for an extension of time to complete community service. When she was booked at the court’s holding facility, a male officer ordered her to remove her hijab — the scarf worn by religious Muslim women. She tried to explain that doing so in front of male strangers would violate her religious beliefs, but was told that officers would do it for her if she didn’t comply. She removed the hijab, and spent most of a day with her hair and neck uncovered in view of male officers and inmates.
In March, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), which requires prison officials to “protect institutionalized persons who are unable freely to attend to their religious needs,” applied to a court holding facility, rejecting the county’s argument to the contrary.
“The Constitution protects the right to religious expression of all of us, even if we’ve been accused of a crime,” said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, director of the ACLU/SC’s Orange County office. “Congress underscored that when it passed RLUIPA to protect prisoners’ religious rights. The county doesn’t escape that just because the holding facility is located in a courthouse.”
“I’m happy we were able to help Mrs. Khatib protect her First Amendment rights,” said Jennifer Mathis, a partner with Troutman Sanders LLP in the firm’s Orange County office. “The injunctive relief that we were able to obtain in the settlement with the county will also ensure that the First Amendment rights of others will be similarly protected.”
As part of the agreement, the county will also train law enforcement officers on the new policy, and pay $85,000 in damages, fees and court costs.