Woman files lawsuit against sheriff’s office, claiming they forced her to remove her hijab for her booking photo

Woman forced to remove hijab by is licensed under
NASHVILLE, TN – A woman has filed a lawsuit against the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office (RCSO) because while getting her mugshot taken, she was asked to remove her hijab.

On August 23rd, the woman, identified as Sophia Johnston, was pulled over in Wilson County by a deputy for a broken taillight. After running the woman’s information, deputies discovered that she had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant from 2017.

The warrant was for driving on a suspended license. Johnston was arrested and taken to the Rutherford County Jail.

According to Johnston, she had no idea that she had an outstanding warrant related to a suspended driver’s license. She said she would never have dismissed it had she known about it. 

While at the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), Johnston was allowed to take two mugshots. The first photo was without her hijab and the second was with her hijab; the latter of the two being the official booking photo.

Officers reportedly told the woman that the photo without her hijab would not be publicly available. When she was booked at RCSO, she stated that she had a different experience. 

“One of the officers told me, ‘Okay, as long as I take my fingerprints and my photo, then I can leave.’ So, I said, ‘Okay,’ and she said, ‘Well, I don’t think you’ll be able to wear your hijab inside the picture,” Johnston recalled.

Johnston said that she pleaded with the officer to allow her to leave on her hijab because it was a part of her religion, but that she was told that she needed to remove the head covering because people sometimes use religion as an excuse to pretend to be someone they’re not. 

“I’m just feeling so humiliated and just scared and alone," Johnston said, "and you know, naked basically because that’s how it feels without our hijab.”

She said that the officers warned her that she would be detained for an unspecified amount of time if she didn’t take off her hijab for the booking photo. She ended up complying and removing the hijab in front of the female deputy for the photo, and male officers did see her before she put it back on.

The lawsuit claims that the deputies broke a state law due to Tennessee’s Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, which in this specific case, denied Johnston’s freedom to exercise her religion. She said only the men in her family have seen her without her hijab. 

“As soon as she [female deputy] takes it," she said, "I put my stuff on really, really fast and I just burst out in tears and she’s like, ‘You know, it’s be over soon.’ And I’m just crying and telling her, ‘You know, for y’all it will, but for me, this is going to last a lifetime.”

Johnston said that she is traumatized from the situation and is fearful that someone will see her mugshot since it is public record.

Her message to the sheriff’s office was, “I would say that before forcing another person to degrade themselves in a way that disrespects their religion, take some time out to have empathy, to know people’s rights, respect and allow them to practice their religion without being afraid.”

Daniel Horwitz is representing Johnston and said that her mugshot has been removed, temporarily. He said that in addition to First Amendment protections, there are state and federal laws protecting people from infringing on people’s right to practice their religion.

“People have a right to practice their religion without unreasonable governmental interference," the attorney said, "and it is unacceptable that any government entity would contrive those rights, especially given the robust protections that Tennessee, in particular, affords.

“The fact of the matter is you do not need to require a Muslim woman to remove her headscarf in order to take a booking photo, and they required her to do so here under threat of indefinite incarceration.”

According to Johnston, her $5,000 bond has been dropped.
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Don't break the damn law and you won't be in this situation.

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