Woman Sues for Being Told to Remove Scarf

A Muslim woman who was ordered by male prison guards to take off her headscarf before she could visit an inmate filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging her constitutional right to practice religion had been violated.

Cynthia Rhouni (search), 43, of Madison, says the scarf, or hijab, that always covers her head and shoulders in the presence of men shows the world she is a devout Muslim.

Rhouni's lawsuit claims that male prison guards at the maximum-security Columbia Correctional Facility (search) north of Madison told her rules prohibited any head covering in the visiting room.

They ordered her to take off her scarf before she could see her estranged husband in 2003, the suit alleges.

She protested, but eventually took the scarf off and went inside so her son could speak with his father. Several male prisoners were able to see her scarfless and her estranged husband and teenage son were upset.

"I just felt totally naked," Rhouni said Wednesday. "I felt I disgraced my family and my religion."

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Madison against two guards and the state Department of Corrections. It seeks unspecified damages that could amount to more than $1 million, said Rhouni's lawyer, David Lasker.

It also seeks to bars Wisconsin prisons from making Muslim women remove their headscarves. "The law is clear: you must accommodate people's practice of their own religion," Lasker said.

John Dipko, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the agency had not seen the lawsuit and that he was unaware of the department's policy on religious head coverings. Columbia Warden Greg Grams did not return a phone message Wednesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin (search) is funding the lawsuit.