No Tough Questions Allowed

There has been such a hullabaloo regarding the Florida woman who refused to allow herself to be photographed for a driver’s license without her Muslim veil, covering all but her eyes, that you might think the matter was important. Well, in a way, it was.

The legal system is cumbersome, expensive, and only peripherally involved with justice. A reasonable person ought to avoid it if at all possible, especially if one of the parties in the case owns and operates the court. And in the case of the Florida woman, Sultaana Freeman, the erstwhile Sandra Keller, avoiding it would have been easy.

Consider Florida’s position: a woman completely covered, except for her eyes, is a woman who cannot be identified readily. It could be Freeman, or it could be someone else. Since the driver’s license photo is for ID purposes, the picture should be of a recognizable individual, not a pair of eyes peering through a slit. OK, but, in fact, how many women in Florida wear this attire? Ten percent? One percent? Probably fewer than that. In a sense, her veiled countenance is perfect identification. "Wearing a veil? Oh, that’s the Freeman woman."

But it gets better: Freeman was photographed, by the police, in 1997, without her veil. It was a mug shot by the Decatur, Illinois, cops, when she was arrested for battering a child. She pled guilty and got probation. If she raised an objection to being photographed then, it isn’t on record; and she was presumably a convert to Islam at that time. Of course, if Freeman is forced to submit to a driver’s license photo sans veil, will she be allowed to wear the veil to drive? If so, will the woman behind the veil in the car be the same woman without the veil in the photo? As a matter of fact, the Florida judge has ruled in Florida’s favor (surprise!), so one problem is solved, but this new one looms.

Freeman’s position, of course, was that her Muslim religion forbids her removal of her veil in public. Is there such a requirement for Muslim woman, in fact? It’s doubtful. A search of the internet shows no such thing, only that the woman’s best attire is being clothed in righteousness, that her bosom be covered, and her skirt lengthened. Nothing about covering the face. And we know that in some Muslim countries, women do not cover their faces, yet remain in good standing in the Islamic faith. And these same sources on the internet deny that the Quran, the Muslim bible, requires the veil. Freeman’s attorney produced an Islamic law expert who said that Freeman’s religious beliefs forbad her to remove the veil; the state, not surprisingly, produced another expert on Islam who said there is no reason why she couldn’t remove it for a driver’s license photo. It would appear, therefore, that Freeman’s religious beliefs are her own, not necessarily those of her adopted faith.

What a mare’s nest! Freeman claims that her religion forbids her to remove the veil for a photo, but that is probably not the case. The state claims a "compelling interest" in obtaining her unveiled photo, although a perfectly clear, sharp photograph of her is available on the internet. What could be the real, significant, and important issue in this case is not even mentioned: how can Freeman subject herself to the rule of the state, and then refuse to obey its rules, or, alternatively, why should she seek the state’s license in the first place?

When you beg some strangers for their permission — i.e., "license" — to drive your own automobile, and even pay them to obtain it, it is undeniably clear that you are placing yourself under their authority. If you want their permission, you must follow their regulations, which, of course, they term "law." The state doesn’t point this out, probably because it is reluctant to admit that there is a master/serf relationship between state and citizen.

Similarly, Mrs. Freeman doesn’t question the requirement that she not drive without the OK of the strangers whose license she seeks. She is willing to defy the state, at least a little, but challenging its fundamental claim of control of her life and activities is simply unthinkable; indeed, it is likely that neither Freeman nor her attorneys have even considered questioning the requirement for a driver’s license in the first place. Too bad. THAT would be a significant argument!

As it is, the judge in the case — a state employee — had to decide between the silly arguments of the plaintiff, versus the silly arguments of the respondent. The least silly won, I guess, and we can forget about this foolishness. If there is any point to this exercise, it is that the fundamental claims of the state are not to be challenged. It’s okay to prick the state’s finger, but lunging for the heart is out of the question.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a semi-retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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