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Judge Rules Muslim Woman Cannot Wear Veil in Photo; Interview With Attorney Howard Marks

Aired June 7, 2003 - 19:44   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: An update now on a story we've been covering for a while. A year and a half after a legal battle began over a Muslim woman who wanted to wear a veil for her driver's license photo, a ruling finally today. A judge says she doesn't have to remove the veil unless she wants a license. If she does, then just like me and you, she's got to put a good face on it, take off the veil.
Brian Cabell has the story.


BRIAN CABELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sultaana Freeman, a Muslim, had claimed in court she couldn't take off her veil, or nikab (ph), for a driver's license photograph because it would violate her religious beliefs.

SULTAANA FREEMAN, MUSLIM PLAINTIFF: I don't unveil normally in situations like this because it would be disobeying my lord.

CABELL: Florida had previously granted her a license with a photograph in which she was veiled. But after the September 11 attacks, the state changed its policy. It demanded that she take a new photograph with her face fully exposed or lose her license. She refused and the license was revoked.

Circuit Judge Janet Thorpe ruled in favor of the state. In her decision she wrote, "It would be foolish not to recognize that there are new threats to public safety, including both foreign and domestic terrorism. Plaintiffs' veiling practices must be subordinated to society's need to identify people as quickly as possible."

Florida's attorney general approves.

CHARLIE CRIST, FLORIDA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Nobody was going to make this person take off her veil. But if she wanted to have the privilege, not the right, but the privilege to drive a car in the State of Florida, then we would respectfully ask that she do so.

CABELL: While most Muslims do not believe their religion requires women to cover their faces, Freeman testified that was her belief. And her attorney argued that veiled or unveiled, she in no way posed a threat to anyone's security. HOWARD SIMON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ACLU FLORIDA: What this case was really all about is that the courts more and more, dangerously, I believe, are prepared to set aside fundamental constitutional principles because some government official comes into court and claims, just claims that we need to restrict freedom for the sake of enhancing our security.

CABELL: Officials of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Freeman in the trial, claim that at least 15 other states do allow exemptions in driver's license statutes for people who have religious objections to being photographed.

Brian Cabell, CNN.


COOPER: Howard Marks of the ACLU was a cooperating attorney on the case.

He joins us now from Orlando.

Howard, thanks for being with us.

Obviously you're disappointed by this ruling.

Are you going to appeal?

HOWARD MARKS, ATTORNEY: Yes, we are. Obviously we are disappointed. There are some issues that were addressed in the ruling that are favorable to us. The judge clearly stated that my client has a constitutional right to wear a veil in public, that she has a constitutional right to wear a veil when driving. She also said that my client had sincerely held religious beliefs and the court also acknowledged that there are numerous states throughout the country that would allow Mrs. Freeman to wear a veil and still allow her to drive in the State of Florida.

Nevertheless, she succumbed to the safety concerns of the State of Florida and would not issue an order upholding my client's constitutional rights.

COOPER: But you have indicated in the past and sort of hinted that you believe this woman is basically being persecuted, if you will, because of her Muslim beliefs.

MARKS: I believe this woman is being persecuted for her religious beliefs. It was clear that prior to 9/11 the State of Florida's policy, the law and the constitution permitted her to have a license. The law has not changed. Nothing has changed except this court's and the Florida's perception of the perceived safety requirement to now have a photograph.

COOPER: Now, Howard, I know you know...

MARKS: And the... COOPER: ... there are a lot of people who are probably seeing this and don't understand why this woman wouldn't remove the veil and probably some think you're, maybe that you're even being duped. This woman, I know, back in 1998, I believe it was, in Illinois was arrested, pleaded guilty for -- she was pleaded guilty, sentenced to 18 months probation. She had kids in foster care who, when child welfare workers came, they ended up taking the kids away from her. And she pleaded guilty to that and her -- you see her mug shot right there, that was after she was, you know, wearing the veil. And, in fact, child welfare workers said they thought they were using the veil to sort of cover up some of the bruises on these kids.

Do you feel at all that you're being duped by this woman?

MARKS: I'm not being duped by this woman. That was evidence that was not admissible in court and it was ruled inadmissible in court and the issue in this case is whether or not religious liberty is going to be protected in the courts of United States or whether or not we're going to allow the terrorists that attacked this country and that we're able to win on the battlefield, but we're going to allow them to attack our own American citizens who want to exercise their constitutional rights.

This is a significant issue. The law has not changed and we should now allow our fears and our prejudices to affect our constitutional rights.

COOPER: Now, very briefly, I understand your client might allow or indicated that she would allow some old photos to be used for the license. Is that a compromise you think might be accepted?

MARKS: I did not say that. I said the State of Florida has, obviously, old photographs of her. They've, in violation of what I believe are the court orders, distributed that throughout the press in the United States. There's nothing we can do about that. We have a free press and we respect the rights of the press to obviously report the news they feel is significant.

But my client will not unveil. She stated that in court. She stated that today. And I don't know how to make that any clearer.

COOPER: All right.

MARKS: She had -- OK.

COOPER: Well, we'll leave it there. You're going to appeal it and she won't take off the veil, as you've said, so I guess she won't be driving until you appeal and get the results of that.

Howard Marks, appreciate you joining us.

Thanks very much.

MARKS: Thank you.


Interview With Attorney Howard Marks>

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