ORLANDO, Fla. – More than three years after the state suspended her driver’s license, an appeals court has ruled a Muslim woman must unveil her face for a photograph if she wants to regain her driving privileges.

The ruling by Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal all but assures Sultaana Freeman will continue to fight Florida’s driver’s license bureau in the court system.

In an opinion issued Friday, a three-judge panel upheld an earlier ruling by an Orange County circuit judge and found Freeman’s arguments on religious grounds and civil liberties without merit.

“We recognize the tension created as a result of choosing between following the dictates of one’s religion and the mandates of secular law,” the appeals decision says. “However, as long as the laws are neutral and generally applicable to the citizenry, they must be obeyed.”

Freeman, through her attorney and the American Civil Liberties Union, had vehemently argued that Florida’s freedom-of-religion statute and the state’s constitution protected her belief that she not unveil for any photograph.

A Florida law enacted in 2003, partly in response to Freeman’s case, mandates that licenses carry full-face photographs of drivers.

Freeman’s case had been closely watched by legal experts nationwide for the precedent it may set for civil liberties. Her legal fight has highlighted the government’s renewed focus on homeland security against religious practices after Sept. 11, 2001.

“We’re disappointed because we believe that Florida’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act would certainly support Sultaana Freeman’s position that she doesn’t have to remove the veil for a drivers-license photo,” said attorney Howard Marks, who plans to take Freeman’s case to federal court.

Marks said he may ask for a rehearing before the court of appeals or go directly to the state or federal supreme courts.

“We are reviewing our options,” he said.

The state’s driver’s license bureau issued Freeman a license in February 2001 in which she was veiled. However after Sept. 11, 2001, state authorities demanded that she pose for a full-face unveiled picture.

“The state of Florida would have never required her to take her veil off if 9-11 had not occurred,” Marks said.

In January 2002, the state yanked her license, prompting her to file a lawsuit in Orange County. During her non-jury trial, a license bureau official testified that her original license had been issued in error.

Circuit Court Judge Janet Thorpe of Orange County sided with the state, concluding that public-safety interests outweigh Freeman’s right to wear her niqab, a veil that shrouds all but her eyes. It is worn by some devout Muslim women.

During her trial, an expert on Islamic law testified for the state that women are allowed to unveil for passport photographs and in other circumstances, based on necessity.


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