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VOL. 36 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 24, 2012

Muslim man sues over having to remove cap

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NASHVILLE (AP) - A Muslim man is suing a security company, claiming his religious rights were violated when its guards demanded he remove his cap before entering Nashville's Juvenile Justice Center.

Rashid al-Qadir claims security guards violated his First Amendment right to the free exercise of his religion by telling him he could not wear the small, brimless cap called a kufi. Al-Qadir says he offered to remove the kufi for inspection but then wanted to put it back on.

The guards refused and demanded he leave the building. Al-Qadir says he left voluntarily because he was afraid of being arrested or hurt.

In a motion filed Tuesday, attorneys for G4S Secure Solutions (USA) Inc. do not dispute al-Qadir's account of the April 11, 2011, events. Instead, they argue the suit should be dismissed because al-Qadir cannot prove his claim that the guards were acting on behalf of the government. Greg Grisham, an attorney for the company formerly known as Wackenhut, said he could not comment further on the suit.

Al-Qadir initially asked the federal court for an emergency order that would allow him to enter the Juvenile Justice Center, where he was fighting a child custody dispute. Two weeks later, the juvenile courthouse adopted a policy allowing religious headwear to be worn in the building once it had been inspected.

In June of this year, al-Qadir amended his original complaint. He is seeking $300,000 in damages: $50,000 for embarrassment, humiliation and emotional distress and $250,000 in punitive damages "to punish and deter Defendant for its deliberate and reckless misconduct."

"I'm an American. I was born in America, and I'm going to be treated like an American," al-Qadir said in an interview. "I have a right to practice my religion freely as long as I'm not hurting anyone, and a kufi is not going to hurt anybody."

Al-Qadir, who is from Franklin, said he has worn a kufi a nd a long robe as signs of his religious faith since he converted to Islam 30 years ago.

"It's very important to me because it allows me to exercise what I believe, to be able to practice my religion freely," he said.

Eric Rassbach, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said whether someone has a right to don religious clothing in places like courts could depend on the particular state they reside in and the building they enter. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1990 that a neutral law that applied to everyone did not violate a plaintiff's religious liberty. However, since that ruling, Congress and many state legislatures, including the Tennessee General Assembly, have adopted laws that give stronger protections to religious freedoms.

Rassbach said disputes over religious headwear and other signs of religious expression, such as the wearing of beards, are not new, but it's possible that they are becoming more common as the nation becomes more diverse.

In Georgia in 2008, a judge in the Atlanta suburb of Douglasville jailed a Muslim woman who refused to take off a hijab, or veil that covers the hair and neck. American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia attorney Azadeh Shahshahani said the uproar spurred the Georgia Judicial Council in 2009 to adopt a nonbinding policy allowing religious head coverings in state courthouses.

That didn't stop a Henry County judge last year from refusing to allow a man wearing a kufi into his courtroom. Judge James Chafin reversed himself in May 2011, saying that he found "through his own research that there is a basis in the Quran for both men and women to cover their heads as a religious observance."

Rassbach said headwear disputes even predate the Revolutionary War.

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, was once set up by a judge determined to convict him. He was forced to put on a hat and then ordered to take it off again. As a Quaker, he considered that a sign of respect that belonged to God and not men, and so he was fined.

The incident was so well known in Colonial days that it influenced the discussion of the Bill of Rights, Rassbach said.