Anyone who has ever been dissatisfied with his driver's license
photo will have to admit there is something to be said for Sultaana
Freeman's approach. In her picture, nothing is visible except her eyes and
the bridge of her nose. The rest of her head is covered by a black veil.
But Freeman's decision to wear the veil was not prompted by
disgust at the quality of DMV photography. As a devout Muslim, she keeps her
face concealed from men outside her family.
The problem, as the Florida Department of Highway Safety and
Motor Vehicles sees it, is that the veil makes the photo pretty much useless
as an identification aid. The department revoked Freeman's license in
January after she refused to replace the picture with one showing her whole
Now Freeman is challenging that decision in state court, arguing
that it violates Florida's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act says
laws that impose a substantial burden on religious freedom are valid only if
they serve a compelling state interest in the least restrictive way
That is the test the U.S. Supreme Court used to apply in
determining whether a law violated the First Amendment's guarantee of
religious freedom. But in a 1990 case involving the use of peyote by members
of the Native American Church, the Court decided that "neutral rules of
general applicability" do not run afoul of the Free Exercise Clause.
Under that looser standard, it's pretty clear that Freeman would
have to pose for a veil-less picture or stop driving. After all, no one
argues that the state of Florida is deliberately singling out Muslims by
requiring "full-face photographs" on driver's licenses.
Under the "compelling interest" test, by contrast, Freeman has a
chance of keeping her face covered. She argues that the state can use other
methods to confirm her identity, such as fingerprints or DNA.
These approaches are rather impractical in the context of a
traffic stop, of course. On the other hand, it's doubtful that letting a few
women wear veils in their driver's license photos will have a noticeable
impact on crime or car accidents in Florida.
Freeman's insistence on her veil is reminiscent of the refusal
by members of an Amish sect in Pennsylvania to put reflective orange
triangles on the backs of their buggies. State law requires operators of
slow-moving vehicles to use the triangles, which the Swartzentruber Amish
consider an affront to their value of plainness.
In both cases, public safety concerns are pitted against deeply
held religious beliefs, but accommodation seems possible without putting
other people in serious jeopardy. A bill in the Pennsylvania legislature,
for example, would allow the Amish to use less-garish reflective tape
instead of the triangles.
While reasonable people can disagree about the appropriate
solutions to these conflicts, there are certain compromises that no
civilized society can make in the name of religion. A government committed
to protecting people's rights cannot tolerate human sacrifice, for instance,
no matter how sincere its practitioners.
At the other extreme are religious practices that violate no
one's rights and do not even arguably threaten public safety. These, you
might think, would be immune from government interference.
Sadly, they are not, as the legal troubles of Akron, Ohio,
landlord David Grey illustrate. Grey, a Christian with traditional moral
views, does not approve of sex before marriage. After he refused to rent a
house to an unmarried couple, they filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil
Rights Commission, which found that he was guilty of illegal discrimination.
The odd thing is that Ohio does not ban discrimination based on
marital status. In fact, a landlord is allowed to turn away unmarried
couples out of concern that they might split up, thereby jeopardizing his
But the commission reasoned that because Grey cited his
religious beliefs in rejecting the tenants, he was in effect discriminating
against them based on
their religion. According to
this view, Gray's religious motivation means that he cannot use his own
property as he sees fit.
"Religion should not even come into play," said Vincent Curry,
executive director of the Fair Housing Advocates Association of Akron. "We
all have different religious beliefs, but when you're in the business of
providing housing, your choice of who gets the residence shouldn't be based
on your beliefs."
Religious beliefs are fine, in other words, as long as you don't
act on them.