Judges in the United States can now order a veiled woman witness to remove her face covering to testify in court, according to a new court ruling issued last week that has human rights groups worried about potential discrimination against veiled Muslim women.
In a majority 5-2 vote, Michigan's Supreme Court ruled that judges should "exercise reasonable control" over the appearances of witnesses to judge their body language and facial expressions and to ensure proper identification.
The new ruling was passed following the 2006 Hamtramck case, in which Ginnah Mohammad, a Detroit Muslim woman who wore the full face veil known as the niqab, refused to testify in court after Judge Paul Paruk asked her to remove her facial covering in order to determine whether she spoke the truth.
Mohammed sued Paruk in federal court and her case was dismissed. The Michigan Judges Association and Michigan District Judges Association then requested a court ruling giving judges authority over a witness's attire.
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) criticized the ruling for giving judges more leeway without guidelines and warned that the ruling could backfire as veiled women may shy away from reporting crime for fear of having to unveil in front of a judge.
"It allows a large degree of leeway for the judges to make their own decisions without clear legal guidance," Dawud Walid, executive director of the CAIR in Southfield told Detroit News. "There isn't any clear articulation in regards to what will or will not be acceptable according to a judge's general discretion."
Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Michigan agreed, explaining that the ruling prevents religious women from availing themselves of the justice system either by filing a civil suit or a criminal complaint.
“It plainly tilts in the direction of telling judges to require removal of veils,” Laycock was quoted in the National Post. “For the women who are so religiously committed that they won’t remove the veil this ruling excludes them from the justice system. They can be cheated or taken advantage of and they can’t really complain."
For the women who are so religiously committed that they won’t remove the veil this ruling excludes them from the justice system. They can be cheated or taken advantage of and they can’t really complain."
Douglas Laycock, law professor
A legal challenge
However Jessie Rossman, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was not worried and said that the language of the ruling was broad enough not to explicitly prohibit judges from allowing women to remain veiled.
"Trial court judges have retained their power to exercise their discretion," Rossman, who was optimistic that judges would respect religious beliefs, said. "We're hopeful and encouraging trial court judges to honor women's constitutionally protected freedom and allow women to testify in the niqab."
Rossman added that while ACLU cannot challenge the adoption of the new rule, it could challenge its enforcement on a case by case basis if a trial court judge discriminates against a woman because of religious attire.
But Angela Wu, a lawyer with the Washington-based Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, warned that the Michigan ruling could be the start of legalized greater restrictions on religious liberty that may govern behavior in all walks of life.
The face veil ruling is a cutting-edge issue that comes as the latest development in the controversy over the niqab in the U.S. and proper consideration of people’s religious clothing.
The Detroit area is home to one of America's largest Muslim populations and legal observers as well as Muslim activists warn the veil ruling is bound to arise elsewhere in the country.
We're hopeful and encouraging trial court judges to honor women's constitutionally protected freedom and allow women to testify in the niqab
Jessie Rossman, ACLU