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Last Updated: Friday, 6 June, 2003, 20:55 GMT 21:55 UK
US Muslim ordered to lift veil
Sultaana Freeman
Mrs Freeman refuses to show her face to strangers
A Florida judge has told a Muslim woman that she must remove her veil for an identification photograph if she wants to be issued with a driver's licence.

Sultaana Freeman, a United States citizen who converted to Islam six years ago, had her licence revoked after she refused to remove the veil, called a niqab, for the picture.

She filed a lawsuit in January 2002 claiming that forcing her to remove the niqab, which leaves only her eyes uncovered, violated her constitutional right to religious freedom.

However, Judge Janet Thorpe found that "the momentary raising of her veil for the purpose of the ID photo does not constitute a substantial burden on her right to exercise her religion".

The requirement that all potential drivers have their driver's licence photos taken unveiled, uncloaked, and unmasked does not unconstitutionally burden the free exercise of religion
Judge Janet Thorpe

Judge Thorpe said it was essential that drivers could be identified from their licence photographs in order the ensure that the public were kept safe from "criminal activities and security threats".

"The state's need to be able to immediately identify subjects of investigative traffic stops and criminal and intelligence investigations outweighs anyone's need to pose for a driver's licence photo wearing any garb that cloaks all facial features except the eyes," she said.

Sensitive issue

Mrs Freeman, who testified wearing the veil, said that her faith banned her from revealing her face to strangers or men outside the family.

Islamic scholars differ on what constitutes correct dress for women and consequently Muslim women adopt widely differing dress codes.

World Trade Center debris
Civil rights groups say anti-Muslim feeling increased after the 11 September attacks

In the wake of the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington the US has massively beefed up its public security measures

Following Mrs Freeman's refusal to remove her veil the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles accused Mrs Freeman of being "hypersensitive".

Jason Vail, an assistant state attorney, said the requirement did not target a particular religion. "It targets everyone," he said.

But civil rights and privacy advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) backed Mrs Freeman's lawsuit.

They said the state acted out of prejudice against Muslims which became heightened after the attacks in Washington and New York, blamed on Muslim terrorists from the al-Qaeda network.

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