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Published: Tuesday, 5/12/2009

Michigan high court considers Muslim veil issue


LANSING, Mich. The Michigan Supreme Court on Tuesday weighed if judges can regulate how witnesses dress after a Muslim woman's small claims case was dismissed when she refused to remove a veil while testifying.

Hamtramck District Judge Paul Paruk told Ginnnah Muhammad that he needed to see her face to judge her truthfulness. The 45-year-old from Detroit kept her niqab on during the October 2006 hearing.

Some Muslim leaders interpret the Quran to require that women wear a headscarf, veil or burqa in the presence of a man who is not their husband or close relative.

After Muhammad sued the judge, the Michigan Judges Association and Michigan District Judges Association got behind a statewide court rule that would give judges "reasonable" control over the appearance of parties and witnesses to observe their demeanor and ensure they can be accurately identified.

During a public hearing on the proposed rule, Muhammad told the high court that she is a law-abiding citizen, but she had no other choice when she was asked to take off the veil, which she also wore Tuesday.

"I don't want to sit at home and feel like I can't ask a judge to help me if I have a problem," said Muhammad. The black dress and niqab covered her body, head and face except the eyes.

Muhammad originally went to court to contest a $3,000 charge from a rental-car company to repair a vehicle that she said thieves had broken into.

The Supreme Court delayed a vote on the rule change until its next administrative conference on June 17.

The American Civil Liberties Union, along with Bapist and Jewish religious groups, pushed the court to add an exception for people whose clothing is dictated by their religion. The SafeHouse Center, a domestic violence nonprofit in Washtenaw County, warned the court rule could discourage Muslim women from coming forward if they have been abused.

But Justice Stephen Markman said "judges are not theologians," and they should not be forced to decide whether a witness is exempted from requirements imposed on everybody else.

The plaintiff "is a not a law unto herself and she cannot unilaterally determine the circumstances under which she will participate in the judicial process and communicate to judges and juries that she is a credible witness," Markman said.

Justice Maura Corrigan said the issue involves a "major league clash" between two constitutional requirements. The U.S. and Michigan constitutions protect the freedom of religion and a defendant's right to confront an accuser.

The ACLU notes that the Sixth Amendment's confrontation clause relates to criminal, not civil, cases. Even if Muhammad had been testifying against a criminal defendant, a face-to-face confrontation does not mean a witness's entire face must be seen, according to the ACLU.

Other critics say observing facial expressions is an inaccurate method of assessing credibility.

The Detroit area is home to one of the country's largest Muslim populations, and observers think the veil issue will arise elsewhere in the United States.

"It's a cutting-edge issue of first impression," said Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday also considered statewide rules governing the use of cell phones and other electronic devices by jurors and lawyers. Justices tabled a decision until the June meeting.

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