Sherburne County jail's ban on head scarves draws protests

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2011 - 11:03 PM

Amina Farah Ali, recently convicted on terrorism charges, has been eating meals in her cell in protest.

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Defendants Hawo Mohamed Hassan, left, and Amina Farah Ali, both of Rochester, after a court hearing in August. During her trial, Ali was jailed briefly for refusing to stand for the judge and jury.

Photo: Craig Lassig, Associated Press

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A Muslim civil rights group has joined the challenge to a Sherburne County policy that forbids female inmates from wearing head scarves in jail.

In a letter sent Thursday to Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott, the Minnesota chapter of the national Council on American-Islamic Relations argued that the ban violates Muslim women inmates' First Amendment rights to freely practice their religion.

The letter was prompted by the case of a woman convicted last week in federal court on terrorism-related charges.

Amina Farah Ali, who is in the Sherburne County jail, is choosing to eat most of her meals inside her cell instead of with other inmates in an apparent protest of the head scarf ban.

Ali, of Rochester, a U.S. citizen originally from Somalia, is among many Muslim women who believe their faith requires them to cover their hair when in the presence of men who are not their husbands or close relatives.

There are men who work in the common eating areas, said Daniel Scott, Ali's lawyer, who also sent a letter to the sheriff citing federal civil rights law, which states that the government shall not interfere with religious practices by institutionalized people unless it can demonstrate "a compelling government interest" in doing so.

"They have to accommodate in some way," Scott said. "They cover the rest of her body. We're just talking about one more piece of her body that's covered."

Brott wasn't budging, though.

"We're not inclined to change our policy," he said, adding that Ali's religious views and practices have been accommodated. For example, he said, she is allowed to perform ritual prayers and to have her Qur'an.

But her head scarf would fall in the category of civilian clothes, which are prohibited for inmates, he added. "It's for the safety and security of the facility. ... We don't allow for opportunities for inmates to hide contraband that might be a security risk to other inmates," Brott said.

Taneeza Islam, civil rights director for CAIR-MN, wrote to the sheriff:

"In conjunction with the First Amendment right to practice one's religion freely and numerous cases argued across the country, it is clear that Muslim women have the right to wear a headscarf while incarcerated."

The letter continued: "A Muslim woman's practice of wearing a headscarf is a sincerely held belief which is a protected exercise of her religion. Asking her to remove her headscarf is akin to asking her to be naked in front of others. A headscarf, unlike a crucifix or other ornament, is not a mere accessory but an essential article of clothing for those Muslim women who practice it."

Ali first raised concerns about her ability to practice her religion in jail when she was booked into the jail a couple of weeks ago after she was declared in contempt of court. At the time, Ali refused to wear the standard orange jumpsuit and had to be stripped and put into the jumpsuit by guards. She told the judge that she had been mistreated and that her head scarf was removed.

Ali received jail time as punishment for refusing to stand before Chief U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis and the jury during court proceedings. After spending two nights behind bars, however, she told the judge she was ready to stand.

Ali was tried, along with her friend, Hawo Mohamed Hassan, in Minneapolis for allegedly conspiring to support a foreign terrorist organization. A jury found both women guilty of conspiracy, and additionally found Ali guilty of providing material support -- money -- to Al-Shabab, the Al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia.

Brott said Ali has been eating, but mostly in her cell. She came out of her cell on Thursday, he said, and did some laundry.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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