Ginnah Muhammad is a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab, a head scarf and veil that covers her entire head except for her eyes.
Her refusal to remove it to testify at her small-claims case against a car rental company has prompted the Michigan Supreme Court to consider a proposed amendment of MRE 611.
Muhammad rented a car from Enterprise Leasing. Enterprise charged her for damage to the car. Muhammad responded by filing a small-claims suit to get her money back.
Thirty-First District Court Judge Paul J. Paruk, sitting as the small-claims court, told Muhammad she had to remove the veil before she could testify. The judge said he needed to see her face so that he could better assess her credibility.
Muhammad balked. She told Paruk she would remove the veil only for a female judge.
Paruk dismissed her case without prejudice.
Enterprise, in the meantime, filed a small-claims suit against Muhammad. She removed it to the 31st District Court. This set up another confrontation with Paruk, who is that court’s only judge. Muhammad asked Paruk to recuse himself from the case. Paruk denied the request and awarded Enterprise $2,083 in damages. Muhammad’s appeal is pending in Wayne County Circuit Court.
But it’s not just about the two grand. Muhammad sued Paruk in federal district court. She alleged that Paruk’s insistence that she remove her veil violated her First Amendment right to free exercise of religion and denied her access to the court system. See, Muhammad v. Paruk, 553 F. Supp. 2d 893 (E.D. Mich. 2008).
U.S. District Court Judge John Feikins declined to exercise jurisdiction over the case. But in doing so, he noted that under Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), “the right to free exercise of religion does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability.”
Feikins then explained why he wouldn’t hear the case:
[I]f Paruk has a valid, neutral and generally applicable policy of requiring witnesses to keep their faces visible while giving testimony, that policy would not violate Muhammad’s right to free exercise of her religion. Determining if Paruk has such a policy and, if he does, deciding whether it is valid, neutral and generally applicable would necessitate a detailed examination of how Paruk manages his court room as a state court judge. Conducting this type of review as a federal judge would undoubtably increase friction in the relationship between our state and federal courts. I find, therefore, that respect for the relationship between our state and federal courts weighs heavily against exercising jurisdiction over Muhammad’s declaratory judgment action for violation of her right to free exercise of her religion.
The proposed amendment of MRE 611 would give Michigan judges the framework to create the neutral policy Feikins mentioned:
(b) Appearance of Parties and Witnesses. The court shall exercise reasonable control over the appearance of parties and witnesses so as to (1) ensure that the demeanor of such persons may be observed and assessed by the fact-finder, and (2) to ensure the accurate identification of such persons.
A staff comment to the proposed amendment explains:
This proposed amendment would clarify that a judge is entitled to establish reasonable standards regarding the appearance of parties and witnesses to evaluate the demeanor of those individuals and to ensure accurate identification.
The court is accepting comments on the proposed amendment through April 1, 2009. Send them by e-mail to MSC_clerk@courts.mi.gov or by regular mail to Box 30052, Lansing, MI, 48909.