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Legal Learning: Cover your head, women

James Manahan

Saint Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, told women to cover their heads. He said in Chapter 11 of his letter that "a husband (is) the head of his wife" and "for this reason, a woman should have a sign of authority on her head."

The Catholic Code of Canon Law used to say that "men, in a church ... shall be bare-headed; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed."

I remember my mother pinning a handkerchief on her head whenever we entered a church. However, the code was repealed in 1983 and Catholic women no longer have to cover their heads in church.

Many Muslims, however, still believe that their religion requires women to keep their heads covered whenever they are outside their homes. Some Muslim women wear a hijab (head covering), and in Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is required by law. Others wear a burqa or niqab that also covers most of the face.

One Muslim woman explained that "taking off the head scarf is akin to being naked in front of those who are proscribed to see your hair."

Several years ago, a bill was introduced in the Minnesota Legislature that would have required the full head and face to be shown on driver's license photos.

"It's a simple matter of public safety," the bill's chief author, Republican Rep. Steve Gottwalt said.

A Muslim woman responded by saying that "I would never walk outside without my hijab, never. If I take it off, I disobey God."

After years of debate, the Legislature decided last year that the commissioner of public safety can allow a driver's license to be issued without any photograph if "the licensee has religious objections to the use of a photograph." (Minn. Statute 171.071)

The U.S. State Department allows religious head coverings to be worn in passport photos, and the Transportation Security Administration allows them to stay in place at airport checkpoints.

In Europe, the lawmakers have not been so accommodating to Muslims. There are now six countries that forbid any face coverings in public places: France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands. Four countries — Germany, Latvia, Finland and Luxembourg — are considering similar bans.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy started the trend, saying that "the burqa is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom."

Students in state schools and workers in government offices are banned from covering their hair in France.

In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French ban on face veils, ruling against a 24-year-old Muslim woman. In 2017, the Court issued similar decisions against two Belgian women. Last August in Denmark, a woman wearing the niqab, which covers the entire body except the eyes, was attacked by another Danish woman who tried to pull her veil off. Police fined the Muslim woman $156.

The U.S. Congress is currently wrestling with this issue. Ilhan Omar was elected to the House of Representatives last month from Minneapolis, and she is challenging the ban on head coverings in the House that has been in effect since 1837. She is the first hijabi elected to Congress. (The other Muslim woman elected in Detroit last month, Rashida Tlaib, doesn't wear a hijab.

Omar tweeted: "No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It's my choice — one protected by the First Amendment. And this is not the last ban I'm going to work to lift."

The Democratic leaders are likely to support the rule change, which will apply to all religious headgear, including yarmulkes worn by many Jews. (Sen. Joe Lieberman, an observant Jew, always wore a yarmulke outside Congress, but not in the chambers.)

But the rule change won't help U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami, who wants to wear her colorful hats inside Congress and has been trying without success to get the rule changed. She wants to make a fashion statement, not a religious one.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota's Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer. He can be reached at jimmanahan@gmail.com or jamesmanahan.com

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