Don’t Close the Courthouse Doors on Muslim Women

May 01, 2009

It takes an incredible amount of courage to face one’s attacker in court – to look them in the eye and tell the truth as you have experienced it. According to one study, between five and twenty-five percent of rape cases are reported to the police, and only one in five of this small percentage actually reaches trial. It is hard enough for survivors to come forward. We should not erect additional barriers to prevent individuals from exercising their fundamental right to access our justice system.

And yet that is exactly what the Michigan Supreme Court’s proposed rule of evidence would do. The Court is considering a rule that would authorize judges to control a witness’s appearance in the courtroom. While seemingly innocuous on its face, it is clear that it was proposed to specifically authorize judges to bar Muslim women who wear niqab, a veil that covers the lover part of the face to testify in court unless they remove their veil.

The rule was proposed in reaction to a lawsuit brought on by a Muslim woman whose small claims lawsuit was dismissed because she refused to remove her veil. However, it is easy to imagine a situation where the individual could be a victim of a violent crime or a rape survivor. In this situation, a woman who would like to bring a criminal claim against her assailant would have to choose between justice and religious beliefs – a choice that no one should have to make. In essence, imposing this requirement could mean women who wear a niqab could be raped with impunity. This is unacceptable. Our constitution simply cannot tolerate conditioning one of our most protected rights upon the abandonment of the free exercise of religion.

It is sometimes easy to distance ourselves from discrimination against individuals who exercise religious beliefs that are foreign from our own behavior. “My religion doesn’t require me to do X,” we say, “so what do I care if the government discriminates against people who do X.” We all suffer, however, when individuals lose their right of access to the courts. The goddess of justice may be blind, but we cannot turn a blind eye to this type of religious discrimination.

By Jessie Rossman, ACLU of Michigan Staff Attorney

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