DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. – A Muslim woman who was arrested after she refused to remove her headscarf in a west Georgia courthouse filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the city of Douglasville and the officers who arrested her, contending they violated her constitutional rights.
Lisa Valentine said authorities trampled on her First Amendment rights in December 2008 when she was ordered to serve 10 days in jail for contempt of court after she refused to remove her hijab at a courtroom. She was released in less than a day, but her arrest infuriated Muslim rights activists and prompted changes in Georgia's courtroom policy.
"I hope that no person of faith will ever have to experience the type of egregious treatment I suffered at any Georgia courthouse because of the expression of my beliefs," said Valentine, whose lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and its Georgia chapter.
After Valentine's arrest, a Douglasville judge ordered "special provisions" to be made for those wearing religious headwear. More sweeping changes came in July 2009, when the Judicial Council of Georgia voted to allow religious and medical headgear into Georgia courtrooms.
The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of Georgia, seeks unspecified punitive damages and attorneys' fees. It claims that the city "demonstrated reckless indifference" to Valentine's constitutional rights and forced her to violate a fundamental tenet of her faith.
Douglasville Mayor Mickey Thompson said he was caught off-guard by the lawsuit.
"This one's a surprise because I think we had worked with Ms. Valentine and I thought her concerns were addressed," said Thompson, who declined further comment until the city's attorneys could review the complaint.
Valentine's arrest came after she was accompanying her nephew to a hearing in the city about 20 miles west of Atlanta.
She said officials stopped her at the metal detector and told her she couldn't enter the courtroom with the headscarf, known as a hijab. She said when she objected and turned to leave, officers brought her before a municipal court judge who ordered her held for contempt of court. She said officer also forced her to take off the hijab when she was booked. Hijabs are intended to protect the modesty of Muslim women.
"I had no idea I was in for such a humiliating experience," she said. "This is who I am. Without it, it's like taking off my shirt. It's like being stripped of something that's part of me."
Douglasville officials at the time said they were trying to follow courtroom rules that restricted headgear, and Douglasville Police Chief Joe Whisenant characterized the incident at the time as a miscommunication.
But the city later said in a statement that the officer who detained Valentine should have sought a solution that "would preserve the spirit of the law." And the city ordered employees to undergo sensitivity training courses in the aftermath of the incident.