ORLANDO, Fla. -- A Florida judge ruled Friday that a Muslim woman cannot wear a veil in her driver's license photo, agreeing with state authorities that the practice could help terrorists conceal their identities.
After hearing three days of testimony last week, Circuit Judge Janet C. Thorpe ruled that Sultaana Freeman's right to free exercise of religion would not be infringed by having to show her face on her license.
Thorpe said the state "has a compelling interest in protecting the public from criminal activities and security threats," and that photo identification "is essential to promote that interest."
Freeman, 35, had obtained a license in 2001 that showed her veiled with only her eyes visible through a slit. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the state demanded that she return to have her photo retaken with her face uncovered. She refused, and the state revoked her license.
Freeman sued the state of Florida, saying it would violate her Islamic beliefs to show her face publicly.
ACLU joins case
Her case was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union, which saw the case as a test of religious freedom. Conservative commentators ridiculed the case, saying it would be absurd to allow people to obscure their faces in ID photos.
Assistant Attorney General Jason Vail had argued that Islamic law has exceptions that allow women to expose their faces if it serves a public good, and that arrangements could be made to have Freeman photographed with only women present to allay her concerns about modesty.
Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist praised Friday's decision, saying "Nothing is more important than making sure that our people are safe."
The ACLU of Florida said it was disappointed in Thorpe's statement that while Freeman "most likely poses no threat to national security," others may take advantage of a ruling in her favor to threaten lives.
"So we have to infringe on Freeman's religious beliefs because of what someone else might do," ACLU legal director Randall C. Marshall said. "It seems to be a funny kind of interpretation on how the law should apply."
Marshall noted that a driver's license can be obtained without a photo in 14 states.
Freeman's lawyers argued that instead of a driver's license photo, she could use other documents such as a birth certificate or Social Security card to prove her identity.
Freeman, a convert to Islam previously known as Sandra Kellar, started wearing a veil in 1997. She had a mug shot taken without the veil after her arrest in Illinois in 1998 on a domestic battery charge involving one of twin 3-year-old sisters who were in her foster care.
Child welfare workers told investigators that Freeman and her husband had used their concerns about religious modesty to hinder them from looking for bruises on the girls, according to the police records. The girls were removed from the home.