September 19, 2016 1:41 PM
A Georgia State University freshman’s desire to wear a niqab in class set off some controversy recently when one of her teachers asked her to remove it because it violates state law. According to a story in the Georgia State Signal, Nabila Khan, who is Muslim, regularly wears a niqab when in public. The niqab is a type of scarf that hides all but the wearer’s eyes, similar to a hijab or burka. She was asked by her teacher, whose name is not provided in the story, to remove the head covering because it is against a Georgia law that forbids wearing masks except on certain holidays, or if medically necessary. The anti-mask law was enacted 60 years ago as an effort to stem the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.
Khan refused to remove the niqab, saying to do so would violate her right to freely exercise her religious beliefs. The teacher withdrew the request and deferred to the Georgia State administration after Khan indicated she would contact a lawyer and school officials. GSU and University System officials confirmed that there was no policy regarding veils, which are permitted as a religious accommodation.
The inherent conflict between someone wanting to practice their religion and laws designed to preserve an orderly society is at the heart of the debate over religious freedom bills like the one introduced by State Senator Josh McKoon of Columbus, who was quoted in the Signal story.
“The government must demonstrate a compelling state interest and show the policy at issue is the least restrictive means of achieving that state interest when challenged on a free exercise basis,” he told The Signal, adding that his “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” from last year could have worked in Khan’s favor, were it passed.
“My bill, Senate Bill 129, would have mandated a heightened standard of review in the case you mentioned, and while I cannot state with certainty the student would have prevailed, she would have been given stronger legal ground upon which to make a challenge,” he said.
Many Gold Dome watchers expect similar religious freedom bills to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session. State Senator Vincent Fort of Atlanta indicated he might be willing to introduce an amendment to the anti-mask law to provide a religious exemption, noting that an effort to modify the law was tried in 2000 but failed. Edward Mitchell, president of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, is concerned about potential blowback from anti-Muslim groups should there by an attempt to change the law. He is in favor of leaving the law as it is, as long as it isn’t strictly enforced.
For her part, Khan is happy that, de facto, her First Amendment right to practice her religion hasn’t been restricted. She told the Signal that she would prefer not to have to take any action “because my religion teaches us to be forgiving and understanding.”