Tennessee Woman Wins Complaint Over Forced Removal of Hijab by Authorities

Sophia Johnston, a devout Muslim who was forced to remove her hijab by Rutherford County, Tennessee law enforcement, has successfully sued the county and its sheriff’s office for infringing on the right to practice her religion without interference.

Tennessee court house
Rutherford County Courthouse in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (Photo by Pollinator/Creative Commons)

The settlement includes damages of $100,000 to Johnston as well as the county’s agreement to revise its booking and jail policies in accordance with the First Amendment and remove all booking photos and video footage that show Johnston without her head covering.

According to the lawsuit filed in November, police detained Johnston for a minor misdemeanor—since dismissed—then told her that if she failed to remove her hijab for the booking photo, she would “remain in jail” until she had done so.

“This is a historic win for Ms. Johnston and her entire religious community.” 

Requiring an observant Muslim woman to remove her hijab in front of men who are not family members is “humiliating and degrading—akin to requiring a woman to take off her shirt in public,” according to court documents.

Johnston, a mother of eight, “could not afford to be incarcerated indefinitely,” and so “relented under strenuous protest,” the lawsuit argued.

Of the incident, Johnston said, “I just remember feeling alone… I just felt like my rights were being violated in the worst way.”

Thanks to Johnston’s settlement, no one else will endure what she did. Under the revised booking policy, “arrestees and citation recipients are not required to remove religious head coverings for booking photos as long as the view of the face and profile are not obstructed by religious attire.”

Under the new detention and jailing protocols, persons “wearing religious head coverings must remove the covering and allow the head to be searched,” but the search should “be conducted outside the presence of members of the opposite sex.”

“This is a historic win for Ms. Johnston and her entire religious community,” said Daniel Horwitz, Johnston’s lawyer. “Citizens have the right to practice their religion without unreasonable governmental interference, and we are proud to have vindicated Ms. Johnston’s rights and secured permanent policy changes that will prevent violations like this from recurring. Every government agency in Tennessee should take notice.”

“I’m extremely grateful,” Johnston said of the settlement. “It feels like I’m not just a voice just for myself, [but] a voice to all religions to let them know that it’s okay to practice religion, to stand up for your rights and hopefully empower others to do the same.”