Generic Christian woman told to remove her 'headscarf' for driver license photo

A Christian woman in a headscarf! And the state forced her to take it off!

The American Civil Liberties Union sure knew the media-sexy spin for its lawsuit against Alabama, which wouldn't let Yvonne Allen wear her headgear for a driver license photo. Especially when a court clerk said only Muslims would be allowed to do so.

And mainstream media joined in the spin -- so avidly that none of them even talked to Allen. It's a "religious ghost" that screams for attention: What type of Christian is she? And what church does she attend that tells her to cover her head?

That's just one of several ways nearly everyone has mishandled this story.

Allen, of Tuskegee, Ala., went for a driver license renewal, but a clerk ordered her to bare her head before being photographed. She protested on grounds that her Christian beliefs forbid a woman from showing her hair. 

The clerks forced her to do so anyway, saying that only Muslim women are allowed headscarves for photos. This despite the fact that Alabama law allows headscarves in photos -- without naming any particular religion -- as long as they don’t hide the face. 

Allen says it was "humiliating and demeaning," and she's suing to have her license photo reshot. The suit also demands unspecified damages.

It's a crazy story, rife with ironies and prejudice, not to mention several constitutional issues. But most reports thus far have done little more than copy and paste the allegations in the ACLU filing.

And, as I say, they’ve also gone along with the spin. Yvonne Allen's headware is more like a turban, as you can see in a picture on the ACLU website. But by using the loaded term "headscarf," the lawsuit echoes the many incidents -- like the two Muslim women recently thrown out of a French restaurant -- of hijab harassment.

Let's start with the much-cited Associated Press:

Yvonne Allen of Tuskegee said in the lawsuit that when she went to renew her license in December, she was directed to remove the headscarf she wears in accordance with her religious beliefs. She said the clerk insisted that only Muslim women were allowed to cover their hair in the photos. 
“I was devastated when they forced me to remove my headscarf to take my driver’s license photo,” Allen said in a statement released by the ACLU. “Revealing my hair to others is disobedient to God. I should have the same right as people of other faiths to be accommodated for my religious beliefs.”

Several questions come up immediately. Which church and/or denomination is Allen in? What does it teach about women's hair? Did AP seek an interview with her? Or with her pastor? Or a district officer?

AP offers some useful background: "The state in 2004 – responding to complaints from Muslims and Sikhs – did away with a policy that prohibited the wearing of head scarves and turbans in driver’s license photos." But it doesn't quote any state officials on why Allen was forced to remove her headcloth.

OK, maybe it was after hours. AP did try to call Probate Judge Bill English, but he didn’t call back. But I'll bet some law professor, maybe at the University of Alabama, could have addressed the discrepancy.

Reuters tried to call both English and Becky Frayer, the chief clerk of his office. It's unclear whether Reuters interviewed Allen or just quoted her in the lawsuit; but like AP, it shows no curiosity about the basis of her religious objections.

The Washington Post tried to call the judge and the clerk, too, but evidently not Allen. Instead, the paper brazenly narrates the episode as if the reporter was there: "With tears welling up in her eyes, Allen eventually removed her headscarf that day to get the license that she needs to drive to work and to take her children to school." 

My guess is they got that from her blog post: "I first politely asked whether the clerk could close the door while my hair was uncovered.  She refused. With tears in my eyes and utter disgust in my belly, I took the picture."

So it's more honest to say that she said she cried over the matter -- not that the reporter saw it happen.

The Post does deserve credit for locating Allen's objections in the Bible: "Allen takes literally the words of 1 Corinthians in the New Testament: 'If a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off.' She never goes out in public without a colorful scarf wrapped around her hair."

The newspaper also notes that some denominations have women cover their heads in public, including many Amish and Mennonites. The International Business Times adds that some Orthodox Jewish communities also require head coverings. That's only original contribution in its article.

You'd think the Alabama Media Group would have plugged up some of these holes. If so, you'd be wrong.  Even with its home court advantage, even with an update at 12:44 p.m. yesterday, the report has no interview with Allen. Nothing from any law profs or state officials (although it did try to reach the judge and the clerk). And despite its Bible Belt locale, no interest in Allen's religious beliefs.

Why didn’t the Alabama Group, AP and International Business Times follow the Washington Post's example and simply quote the ACLU site on Allen's beliefs? The ACLU site has her saying:

Wearing a headscarf is an integral part of my Christian beliefs. In 2011, I moved with my children to Alabama after the end of a 12-year relationship with their father. I was lost, confused, hurt, and broken. But I turned to God and spent hours in prayer and study.  During that time, it became clear to me that, to be obedient to God’s Word and show my submission to him, I had to cover my hair on a daily basis. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul speaks very clearly without ambiguity about this. I have followed this command every day since and believe that removing my headscarf in public is extremely shameful and dishonors God.

AOL News does quote that paragraph, but stops before the Bible quote. Apparently it's worth citing Allen's beliefs, but not the scripture undergirding them. This even though the ACLU post links to the Bible excerpt.

Before closing this out, let's return to the issue of what to call Allen's garb. My stance, as you know, is that Allen and the ACLU played the mainstream media by calling it a headscarf. Other journalists might say that using any other name would amount to editorializing. 

Perhaps some verbal hedge would work better, such as "turban-like headgear, which she calls a headscarf." Somewhat similar to the way some media say "the so-called Islamic State." It would use Allen's phrase without necessarily taking her side. 

Thumb: Yvonne Allen, in a screenshot from the website of the ACLU.

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