Woman sues Dearborn Heights for forced hijab removal

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A Muslim woman is suing the Dearborn Heights Police Department over claims her rights were "stripped at the jailhouse door" last year when she was forced to remove her religious head scarf in custody.

According to the suit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, police stopped Malak Kazan for a traffic violation July 9. An officer noticed the city native's license had been suspended; she was arrested for a traffic misdemeanor.

The suit, according to one law professor , sets up a "clash of conflicting rights."

While being booked, Kazan was asked to remove her hijab, which the tenets of Islam require for "covering her hair, ears, neck and part of her chest when she is in public and when she is in the presence of men who are not members of her immediate family," the suit said.

Kazan told an officer she could not remove the head covering because that would violate her faith, but he said "there were no exceptions," the court filing said. Her request for help from a female police officer also was denied, the document said.

The suit, which also names the city as a defendant, claims Kazan, 27, was denied her constitutional rights and suffered "severe discomfort, humiliation and emotional distress."

It seeks a permanent injunction requiring Dearborn Heights police and the city to modify its head covering policy to allow for those worn for religious purposes as well as provide appropriate training. Damages also are sought.

"The main issue here is that my client's constitutional rights, her religious liberties, can't be stripped at the jailhouse door. She has an absolute right to maintain her faith," attorney Amir Makled said. "We hope this cause of action will bring to light a policy that is dated and needs to be amended. … We also hope to get some further diversity training for officers in the city. Hopefully this will be a learning experience for other law enforcement agencies."

Dearborn Heights Police Chief Lee Gavin did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Gary Miotke, the city's corporation counsel, said he had no comment Thursday "based on the fact that we haven't been able to see the actual lawsuit and evaluate what the claims are and what this is about."

Larry Dubin, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, said the case involves conflicting rights.

"Ms. Kazan is entitled under the First Amendment protection of her religious beliefs including the wearing of a hijab, which may cover part of her face. However, the police have the right to process a person who is being arrested."

Similar claims of conflicts involving religion and law enforcement have surfaced. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that a prisoner has the right to grow a beard for religious purposes "even though the prison officials believed improper drugs or other matter could be hidden from view," Dubin said.

"The Michigan Supreme Court has given judges reasonable control over the appearance of people in court to make sure they can be properly identified and observed."

Dubin added: "In my opinion, this lawsuit could have been avoided if the police brought in a female officer to book Ms. Kazan, which then would have permitted her to remove the hijab without violating her religious beliefs.

"In that way, the police would have afforded Ms. Kazan her constitutional rights while accomplishing the legitimate police work that needed to be done. Ultimately, a federal judge will decide how to balance these conflicting rights."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations' Michigan chapter met with Dearborn Heights and Dearborn officials last year about pursuing policies that would accommodate head coverings during bookings, executive director Dawud Walid said.

"We're always open to meet with those two police departments again as well as in the local area to assist them in implementing policies that are religious-friendly," he said.

He pointed out that since hijabs have been allowed in some military IDs, passport photos and state driver's licenses, "wearing a head covering during a booking photo doesn't impede in identification purposes."

The lawsuit this week is the latest charging perceived bias among Dearborn Heights police.

Last month, an Arab-American family sued the Dearborn Heights Police Department, alleging officers discriminated against them after a dispute with a neighbor.

Nabih Ayad, the attorney representing the family in that case, said Thursday the city had not yet responded to the suit.

James Acho, the lawyer handling the case for the city, said the claims are "baseless" and police there "have a great respect for and enjoy a great relationship with the Arab community in Dearborn Heights. In fact, as an Arab American myself, I take pride and knowing what a great job Chief Gavin and his officers do in treating people of all ethnicities with great respect."

Those two cases, along with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights investigating the Arab-American Civil Rights League's complaint that an Arab student was bullied at a city high school, are worrisome, Ayad said. "This is a serious problem."