The Greater Los Angeles Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) today announced the filing of a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of a Muslim-American woman who had her religious head scarf – hijab – forcibly removed by a male officer of the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD).
Many observant Muslim women hold a sincere belief that Islam requires women to cover their hair and much of their body as a symbol of modesty, especially while in the presence of men who are not related to them.
Kirsty Powell told officers that her hijab is a fundamental part of her faith, and pleaded with them to have a female officer search her in private. She was ignored. Instead, Mrs. Powell's religious freedoms and dignity were stripped from her, in plain view of other male officers and dozens of male inmates. She was forced to remain exposed in a cell overnight – humiliated, distraught, and vulnerable.
When Mrs. Powell's hijab was forcibly stripped, at least four female officers were on duty.
In Mrs. Powell's words, “I would never want anyone to go through what I felt from this experience… it was horrible.”
Unless LBPD officers are held accountable for failing to protect the First Amendment religious freedoms of Muslim-American women, this incident will likely happen again. Religious rights are a core freedom guaranteed under our Constitution and are fundamentally important for police to protect. This is true especially now, given the rise in hate crimes against the American Muslim community.
The traumatic event occurred after Mrs. Powell and her husband, who are both African-American, were pulled over by the LBPD. Mrs. Powell was arrested on an outstanding warrant. During the arrest officers told her she would have to remove her head scarf. One officer told her he was “allowed to touch a woman” and that she was “not allowed to wear her hijab.”
A year before it happened, LBPD investigated an incident involving the removal of a Muslim-American woman's hijab and deemed it a “hate crime.” Then-Police Chief Jim McDonnell stated that “crimes of this nature will not be tolerated in our city.”
There is simply no excuse for what happened to Mrs. Powell. When Mrs. Powell sought administrative relief, Long Beach denied responsibility. The LBPD must honor its pledge that prejudice toward Muslim-American women will “not be tolerated in our city.”
Long Beach's own neighbors – Orange County and San Bernardino – have policies protecting the right of Muslim-American women to wear hijab.
We filed a lawsuit on her behalf, seeking justice for Mrs. Powell and protection for other Muslim-American women who risk violation of their most deeply held religious beliefs. Our suit alleges violation of Mrs. Powell's First Amendment rights, as well as other laws, including the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Judge Gould of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a concurring opinion interpreting RLUIPA that “A Muslim woman who must appear before strange men she doesn't know, with her hair and neck uncovered in a violation of her religious beliefs, may feel shame and distress. This is precisely the kind of 'mischief' RLUIPA was intended to remedy.”
CAIR offers a booklet, called “A Law Enforcement Official’s Guide to the Muslim Community,” which outlines basic information about Islamic beliefs that are relevant to law enforcement, including religiously-sensitive techniques for body searches.
It has become increasingly difficult for Muslim women to freely wear a hijab without being subjected to discrimination, violence, and interference from government officials.
Mrs. Powell expressed, in bringing the suit, that “I want my Muslim sisters to always feel comfortable and safe wearing a hijab and to stand up for what's right… we are all human, we all deserve justice.”
Yalda Satar is a civil rights attorney at CAIR-LA, and a fellow at the Women's Policy Institute (WPI), focusing on women’s rights in the criminal justice system.
Carey Shenkman is a former Ella Baker fellow and works for Michael Ratner, president emeritus of CCR. Carey joins the suit in his native Southern California in his individual capacity.