Muslim Woman Wins Settlement after Her Hijab Was Forcibly Removed
The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) announced the settlement of a federal lawsuit on August 10, filed by CAIR-LA on behalf of a Muslim woman who had her religious head scarf (hijab) forcibly removed by a male officer of the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD).
Kirsty Powell, an African-American Muslim, filed a civil rights complaint after police officers forcibly removed her hijab in view of other male officers and dozens of inmates. Powell wears the hijab as part of her religious beliefs. She was forced to spend the entire night exposed in custody and described the experience as deeply traumatizing.
The Long Beach City Council voted on Tuesday to approve the settlement, which included $85,000 in damages.
After the suit was filed, the LBPD amended its policy in November to accommodate religious head coverings for persons in custody. Long Beach joins neighboring jurisdictions of San Bernardino County and Orange County, which both adopted policies protecting religious headwear in detention following similar lawsuits that settled in 2008 and 2013 respectively.
“We commend Kirsty Powell for choosing to defend her right to religious freedom and taking action,” said CAIR-LA Civil Rights Attorney Marwa Rifahie. “In addition to compensating Kirsty for the humiliation and distress she suffered, this decision also prompted a city-wide policy change by the Long Beach Police Department to ban the practice of forcible removal of the hijab for female arrestees in custody.”
Powell was arrested during a traffic stop on outstanding warrants that were since cleared. During the arrest, she was told by the officers that she would have to remove her hijab. Powell made several requests for a female officer to search her and was denied requests to continue wearing her hijab in custody. The officers informed her that she was “not allowed to wear her hijab” and that they were “allowed to touch a woman.”
“I would never want anyone to go through what I felt from this experience,” Powell said when the suit was filed. “I want my Muslim sisters to always feel comfortable and safe wearing a hijab and to stand up for what's right.”
Co-counsel Carey Shenkman, a constitutional lawyer based in New York, added: “Long Beach did the right thing by admitting that stripping Kirsty’s hijab stripped her of her religious freedom. I hope more cities follow this example by adopting policies to ensure the constitutional rights of Muslims are protected.”
CAIR-LA brought the lawsuit under the First Amendment, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law protecting the religious rights of prisoners.
CAIR recently launched an app to share critical “know your rights” information and to simplify the process to report hate crimes and bias incidents. CAIR is urging American Muslims and members of other minority groups to download the app and utilize this resource to stay informed and empowered. The Washington-based civil rights organization published a booklet outlining basic information about Islamic beliefs that are relevant to law enforcement agencies.