Judge dismisses case of woman who says veil cost her claim

DETROIT — A lawyer representing a Muslim woman who sued a judge for dismissing her small-claims court case after she refused to remove her veil said he’s prepared to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s an unfortunate ruling,” Nabih Ayad said of U.S. District Judge John Feikens’ ruling Monday against Ginnnah Muhammad’s claims that her constitutional right to freedom of religion and civil right to court access were violated.

Hamtramck Judge Paul Paruk requested she remove her niqab — a scarf and veil that covers her head and most of her face — during an October 2006 hearing.

“One could easily see the … continuous litigants that are going to step into district court with this (veil) on,” Ayad said Tuesday. “This issue is going to come up over and over again.”

The Koran does not require the use of veils. In fact, many Muslim women do not wear them, and in some Muslim countries the wearing of veils in public and/or government buildings is prohibited.

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She was contesting a $3,000 charge from a rental-car company to repair a vehicle she said thieves had broken into. She offered to remove her veil before a female judge, but Paruk is the only judge in the district court in Hamtramck, a city surrounded by Detroit.

Feikens wrote that while Muhammad could not appeal Paruk’s decision based on state law, she could have received state court review and filed a counter claim to the company’s suit against her.

Ayad said state law also prevents cases under $3,500 from being filed in the state’s general civil division.

“She can’t file in state court,” he said. “It is, basically, an appeal.”

Ayad said Feikens’ ruling circumvents the constitutional violations, and would appeal within 30 days.

“I feel the judge’s ruling really left a citizen of this community feeling that her belief in the justice system has been stripped from her,” Ayad said. “I always felt that this is a decision that … has a very good chance of going to the appeals court, maybe even the Supreme Court.”

Michigan attorney general spokesman Rusty Hills said the AG’s office was pleased by the ruling.

Assistant state attorney general Margaret Nelson, who represented Paruk, argued during last month’s hearing before Feikens that the case should be dismissed because his decision wasn’t based on religion. She said he needed to “fully observe” Muhammad to properly determine the facts.

“It was a temporary, necessary, limited action (that had) only incidental impact on the practice of her religion,” Nelson said.

The state said the case was a contract dispute between Muhammad and Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The company countersued her later in October 2006 and ultimately won a judgment of $2,083. Muhammad has appealed that decision in Wayne County Circuit Court.

Feikens wrote the U.S. Supreme Court has found that governmental actions that substantially burden a religious practice must be justified by a compelling interest. But the high court later modified the standard, explaining the right to free exercise of religion doesn’t relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law that is generally applied.

Feikens wrote that determining if Paruk observes a valid and neutral policy would require a detailed examination of how he manages his courtroom. And, Feikens wrote, that kind of review would “increase friction in the relationship between our state and federal courts.”

“I find, therefore, that respect for the relationship between our state and federal courts weighs heavily against exercising jurisdiction over Muhammad’s declaratory judgment action for violation of her right to free exercise of religion,” the opinion said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday May 14, 2008.
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