January 27, 2015 Articles

"Remove That Rag!" and Other Humiliations of Religious Minorities in the Courthouse

The First Amendment rights of an individual do not evaporate at the courthouse door.

By Gurjot Kaur

Thirteen years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, religious and cultural minorities, including Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, continue to face hostility, violence, xenophobia, and discrimination in the United States. This includes Sikhs, who are religiously mandated to wear turbans and maintain unshorn hair (including beards), and are often inaccurately conflated with members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), Under Suspicion, Under Attack (2014).

At the same time, our country is rapidly diversifying; Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. Asian American Federation & SAALT, A Demographic Snapshot of South Asians in the United States (updated July 2012). As a result of this growth, there will inevitably be more religious minorities accessing the legal system, from routine traffic hearings to vindicating their civil rights in discrimination cases. Unfortunately, the legal system has not always been accommodating of visibly religious minorities, whose religious practices may conflict with “no headwear” or other “neutral” courthouse attire policies or practices. Press Release, Sikh Coalition, Coalition Helps Sikhs Asked by Illinois Court to Remove Their Turbans (Aug. 7, 2006). These outdated and discriminatory policies, which frequently draw on Western notions of decorum and professionalism, result in missed court dates, dispositions entered in absentia, excessive fines, and in one known case, jail time. In some cases, security officials and judges, in applying these policies, have outwardly expressed hostility to visitors.

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