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Court Battle Over Veil Pits Religion Against Security

Times Staff Writer

By insisting that she show only her green eyes to the world through the narrow slit of her black veil, Sultaana LaKiana Myke Freeman has suddenly become the focus of a national controversy.

The 35-year-old Florida mother of two and convert to Islam has taken the state to court because it has refused to issue her a new driver’s license unless she agrees to be photographed with her face revealed. For Freeman, the lawsuit is about her right to follow what she believes is a divine precept.

“I veil to obey my Lord,” she said Thursday, speaking through the full facial veil called a niqab. However, she added, she also needs to drive.

“I can’t even buy diapers when we are running low,” said the Winter Park woman, who gave birth to a son six months ago. She and her husband also have a 2-year-old daughter.

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State officials say Freeman’s demand runs counter to their mandate to protect the public in the environment of heightened security that has followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A license showing only the bearer’s eyes is of little value for identification purposes, they say.

“The common-sense argument on our side is we need, and have a right as a state, plus a constitutional duty, to ensure domestic tranquillity,” Florida Atty. Gen. Charlie Crist said in an interview. “It’s important that when someone presents an ID that it be that person.”

Arguments concluded Thursday in a nonjury trial before Circuit Judge Janet C. Thorpe, who said she expected to rule by late next week. The trial was shown on Court TV.

“Rather than respecting her religious values, the state is using her as a scapegoat in this so-called war on terror,” attorney Howard S. Marks, who was provided to Freeman by the American Civil Liberties Union, said as the trial began Tuesday. “As if restricting one woman’s ability to drive her kids to the doctor or go grocery shopping does anything to make us safer.”

Shortly after moving to Florida from Decatur, Ill., Freeman obtained a Florida driver’s license with a photograph of herself clad in her veil. According to the ACLU, she also had a license in Illinois that showed her wearing the black hood.

Then came the 2001 attacks and the discovery that some of the 19 hijackers had obtained Florida licenses. The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles asked Freeman to replace the photo with one showing her entire face. She refused, and her license was revoked.

Florida officials deny that they have made a scapegoat of Freeman, or that religion is an issue in her case. They say the Legislature adopted a law in 1967 that requires every driver’s license applicant to submit “a full-faced photograph or digital image of the licensee.”

“I’m not aware of any exceptions ever being made to the statute,” said Bob Sanchez, a spokesman for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in Tallahassee.

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Crist, the attorney general, said officials were so sensitive to Freeman’s faith that they offered to clear all males from an office issuing licenses so she could be photographed by a female staff member. “We are very respectful of all religions,” Crist said. “We’ve offered to take her photo in private.”

The state of Florida flew in Khaled Abou El Fadl, a UCLA law professor specializing in Islamic law, who testified Wednesday that there are times observant Muslim women might be expected, out of necessity, to bare their faces.

A Muslim academic advisor from the University of Central Florida, called to the stand by Marks, testified that Freeman’s strict interpretation of her faith means she has to keep the veil on except in instances where her life might be in danger.

Marks argued that 800,000 people -- including members of the military -- already are allowed to drive in Florida using temporary permits and other documents that lack full-face photos. Allowing another exception, he added, would not increase the danger to the public.

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Freeman said Thursday that she has received many supportive phone calls and e-mails. Some prominent American Muslims, however, have expressed concerns that the lawsuit might make it seem as though believers in Islam are making unreasonable, even potentially dangerous, demands on American society.

“I think you could easily make the case that this takes things too far,” said Hussein Ibish, communications director of the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “If she is so determined not to show her face, perhaps she shouldn’t drive.”

Complicating the issue is the lack of any uniform standard of what constitutes proper attire for Islamic women. “Only a small number of Muslim women believe in wearing a veil,” said Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, a Los Angeles physician and spokeswoman for the Muslim Women’s League. “There are different degrees of modesty, and one cannot say there’s only one way and any other way is wrong.”

As noted in testimony, many predominantly Muslim countries require photos of a woman’s uncovered face for identity documents. In Pakistan, “driver’s licenses need a picture,” Mohammed Sadiq, chief of mission at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, said in a telephone interview. Even for religious pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, a passport carrying a photo that clearly shows a woman’s features is required, Sadiq said.

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For Freeman, who identifies herself as a member of the ultraorthodox Salafiyya branch of Islam, what counts is how she interprets her religious duties. “Whether you believe that the niqab is a requirement of Muslim women or not, the fact is -- it is how I have chose to practice my religion,” she said in a written statement.

Freeman, a native-born U.S. citizen previously known as Sandra Kellar, said she converted in 1997 after opening the Koran and finding “the literal word of Allah.” In court Thursday, she sat quietly, clad in a flowing black hood and robe, as the lawyers made their summations.

Abdul-Maalik, her husband, said that he and his wife were overwhelmed by the national attention, but that they felt obligated to persevere. “It’s a little bit more than we bargained for,” said the man, who wore a white robe and Muslim prayer cap. “But our course is to serve our Lord, period.”

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Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this report.


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