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Driver's License Picture Issue Pits Religious Beliefs Against Security Concerns - 2002-08-13


A U.S.-born Muslim woman is battling for a driver's license in the southern state of Florida, where officials insist she must have her picture taken without a veil covering her face. The case has now landed in a central Florida court, where state attorneys insist that, for law enforcement purposes, driver's licenses must have a photo showing the person's face.

Early last year, Sultaana Freeman got a Florida driver's license despite insisting that she wear a veil for the accompanying photograph. Ms. Freeman adheres to the Muslim principle that only her husband and close family members should be allowed to see her face. At the time, no one from Florida's Department of Motor Vehicles objected, and Ms. Freeman drove for several months without incident.

All that changed after the September 11 terrorist attacks on America. Florida officials informed Ms. Freeman she must have a new picture taken, this time without the veil. When she refused, her license was revoked.

Now, Ms. Freeman is suing the state to get her original license back, and challenging the state's right to insist on a facial photograph because, she argues, compliance would violate her religious beliefs. "The State of Florida does not have a right to require my client to violate one of her fundamental religious beliefs simply to hold a driver's license," says her attorney, Howard Marks. "It is just that simple."

Lawyers for the state of Florida argue that holding a driver's license is a privilege, not a right, and that no one is forcing Ms. Freeman to subject herself to anything. They say the facial photo regulation is applied to everyone, that no one is being singled out, and that if she wishes to have a license she must abide by the rules.

Mr. Marks dismisses the state's contentions as irrelevant. "Whether you want to call it a privilege or whether you want to call it a right, the state does not have the authority, constitutional or otherwise, to burden an individual's fundamental religious beliefs unless there is a compelling state interest," he said.

But Florida officials insist they do have a compelling state interest in assuring all drivers can be easily identified by a photograph, especially after the events of September 11. Assistant State Attorney General Jason Veil explains, "It is for identification purposes. A driver's license is used to identify the license holder to any law enforcement officer. Also, driver's license photos are kept in our data banks and are available to all law enforcement agencies in the country. License photos are routinely used by law enforcement agencies to identify alleged criminals and even crime victims."

Mr. Veil points out that the state is sensitive to religious beliefs, but must weigh them against other concerns in order to serve and protect the public. In this case, he notes the regulation must be enforced.

"It [the requirement] is not intended to infringe on anybody's religious beliefs," said Mr. Veil. "This is a general regulation that applies to anyone [who wants a license]."

Both sides have suggested possible solutions to the impasse. Howard Marks says his client would agree to be fingerprinted in lieu of having her photograph taken. But state officials say it is not practical to expect a law enforcement officer to check fingerprint records if and when Ms. Freeman is pulled over for a traffic violation. The state has countered with an offer to arrange to have a photograph taken in private, with only one female Department of Motor Vehicles employee present. Ms. Freeman maintains that such a photograph, no matter how it is taken, would still violate her religious beliefs.

Legal scholars say previous court cases do provide certain precedents for Ms. Freeman's lawsuit. On the one hand, in 1983, a Nebraska woman won the right to obtain a driver's license without having a photograph taken at all. On the other hand, in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Oregon could deny employment to American Indians who had used the drug peyote for religious ceremonies, noting that the state's drug-free employment regulation was applied evenly to all.

Legal scholars say, since September 11, courts have generally granted the government broader authority to create and enforce regulations pertaining to domestic security. That fact is not lost on Ms. Freeman's attorney, Howard Marks.

"It is my belief that if September 11 had not occurred, her driver's license would never have been revoked," he argues. "In fact, my client converted to the Muslim faith several years ago, but she was raised and grew up in the State of Illinois. She had a driver's license in Illinois with her veil on and never had any problems there; she worked for the state of Illinoiswearing her veil and never had a problem there."

Last month, a circuit court judge in central Florida threw out a state motion to dismiss Ms. Freeman's lawsuit, in effect, allowing the case to go forward.

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