RUTHERFORD COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) — A Muslim woman is suing the Rutherford County sheriff and deputies after they allegedly forced her to remove her hijab for a booking photo.
According to the complaint, Sophia Johnston was pulled over in Wilson County on Wednesday, Aug. 23 for a broken tail light. Officers then found an outstanding warrant related to a 6-year-old misdemeanor charge for driving with a suspended license out of Rutherford County.
At the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office, Johnston was allowed to take two mugshots: the first without her hijab that officers said wouldn’t be publicly available, and the second with her hijab to function as her official booking photo.
However, when taken to the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office to be booked, 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 claimed.
She said she started pleading with the officer to respect her faith, but was again told she needed to remove her head scarf 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 and, you know, naked basically, because that’s how Muslim it feels with our hijab,” she said.
She said she was warned she would be detained for an unspecified period of time if she didn’t take the booking photo, and as a mother of eight children, that was not an option.
Johnston ended up removing the hijab in front of the female deputy for the photo, but male officers saw her before she put it back on.
“As soon as she takes it, I put my stuff on really, really fast and I just burst out in tears and she’s like, ‘You know, it’d 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. “It was treated as if it didn’t matter.”
The fear of having a photo of her without her hijab on available to the public was a nightmare for Johnston and she said she left the office as fast as she could.
Daniel Horwitz is representing Johnston and said the mugshot has been taken down temporarily.
Horwitz said 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, and it is unacceptable that any government entity would contravene those rights, especially given the robust protections that Tennessee, in particular, affords,” Horwitz explained.
He added any argument claiming this was a circumstance where Johnston needed to comply and remove her hijab is inaccurate.
“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,” he said.
The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to an emailed request for comment or an interview.