ACLU: Christian woman should be allowed to cover head in driver's license photo

by Gregory Tomlin, |
An example of a head covering worn by Christian women in some denominations. Yvonne Allen believes Scripture teaches that her head should be covered at all times in public. Lee County, Alabama, driver's license administrators required her to remove it before she could take a renewal photo. |

TUSKEGEE, Alabama (Christian Examiner) – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), known for its liberal outlook on topics such as human sexuality and abortion, has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a Christian woman who was forced to remove her head scarf for her driver's license photo.

According to the lawsuit, when Yvonne Allen went to renew her driver's license in Lee County, Ala., in December 2015, she was instructed to remove her head covering because, county workers said, religious accommodations on head coverings "applied only to Muslims."

Revealing my hair to others is disobedient to God. I should have the same right as people of other faiths to be accommodated for my religious beliefs.

Workers then, according to the filing, belittled Allen's "sincerely held religious beliefs, with the Chief Clerk informing her that she was herself a Christian and did not cover her head."

"Left with no choice if she wished to renew her license, Ms. Allen – with tears in her eyes and feeling sick to her stomach over the violation of her religious beliefs – removed her head covering," the lawsuit claims.

While the complaint does not identify the denomination to which Allen belongs, some Christian denominations – such as the Mennonite Brethren – do mandate a head covering for women in public and especially in church. There is also a growing "head covering movement" among some church groups. The movement began in Canada in 2014 and has spread to parts of the U.S. Some Protestant groups in Europe and Asia also require the practice.

For her part, Allen bases her views on her interpretation of the Apostle Paul's instructions to women in the Bible.

"Wearing a headscarf is an integral part of her sincerely held Christian beliefs," the ACLU lawsuit claims. "Ms. Allen believes that the Bible – in particular, 1 Corinthians 11 – commands her to show her submission to God by covering her hair in public. She believes that removing her headscarf in public is disobedient to God."

It is widely agreed among biblical scholars that the head covering mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 pertains to worship, but Paul offers no blanket instruction for public head covering outside of that assembly.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency allows driver's license applicants to wear head coverings for religious reasons, as long as the "full face" is visible – or from the top of the forehead to the chin.

"Head coverings and headgear are only acceptable due to religious beliefs or medical conditions, and even then, may not obscure any portion of the applicant's face," the regulation reads.

In a joint statement from the ACLU and the ACLU of Alabama, Allen was quoted as saying she was "devastated" by being forced to remove the head scarf. It did not say if she was allowed to or asked to wear the head scarf in her previous driver's license photo. It also did not indicate when she came to the opinion that her head should be covered in public.

"Revealing my hair to others is disobedient to God. I should have the same right as people of other faiths to be accommodated for my religious beliefs," Allen said.

Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, said the county's interpretation of rules violent the First Amendment because the government must allow the same exemption for all religions.

The government cannot discriminate between faiths in granting religious accommodations," Watson said.

Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's "Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief," also said there was no reason for the county to have mandated the removal of the head covering.

"The Constitution protects both Christians and Muslims and, indeed, people of all faiths," Weaver said.

The lawsuit, aimed at the Lee County judges responsible for overseeing the driver's license operation, asks for damages and attorneys' fees for Allen. It also pleads with the court for Allen to be able to retake the photo.

To read the lawsuit, click here.