Rebecca Beesley, a University of Idaho student, who wears a religious headscarf, went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Moscow recently to renew her identification.
She was turned away when she was asked to take the headscarf off and refused to do so.
“She covers her hair for religious reasons and they told her that they could not permit her to wear it in her DMV photo unless she was willing to get a note from her religious leader,” said ASUI President Max Cowan.
Cowan said Beesley was not sure if she had been discriminated against or if the law granted the DMV the right to ask for written verification of a person’s religion.
“I felt really discriminated against,” Beesley said. “It also made me feel like my religious rights were being damaged. I would not even mind if the lady asked why I wear that, but to force me to get documentation as to why I wear a headscarf … it should have been enough for me to say it was for religious reasons.”
When Beesley approached Cowan and the student defender to ask for clarification on the law, it became apparent that no laws were breeched by the DMV. Idaho policy requires religion verification for those who want religious accommodation in driver’s license photos.
In response, Cowan authored a resolution that was introduced at last Wednesday’s senate meeting that asks the state legislature to ease restrictions on religious head coverings in DMV photos.
The Idaho Code currently states, “The photograph shall be taken without headgear or other clothing or device that disguises or otherwise conceals the face or head of the applicant. A waiver may be granted by the department allowing the applicant to wear headgear or other head covering for medical, religious or safety purposes so long as the face is not disguised or otherwise concealed.”
Cowan said written permission places extra requirements for those individuals whose religious beliefs include head coverings.
“She felt that was an infringement of her rights, that because of her religions beliefs she was having to take an extra step as opposed to others,” Cowan said.
Sen. Kelly James Fisher said he is going to vote to pass the resolution because he was saddened to hear some people need to show verification of their religion, while others do not.
“It’s 2013, I am surprised this is still an issue,” Fisher said. “We live in a world where people are of all different ethnicities, origins and religions and Idaho needs to be more accommodating to that.”
Cowan said the resolution would put Idaho on par with other states in the U.S. that have eased their identification laws.
“Several states simply have no restrictions,” Cowan said. “There are also several states that do allow you to cover your face in DMV photos, actually, which is kind of interesting. There are several states that allow for your photo not to be taken — states where there are high Amish and Mennonite Christian populations, specifically, because some have objections to their photos being taken.”
Sen. Vivian Gonzalez is the sponsor of the resolution and said unless a person’s face becomes unidentifiable, there should be no problem allowing someone to wear a head covering — citing wigs and dyed hair as examples.
“Religion shouldn’t be questioned and I feel as headscarves are a part of somebody’s identity,” Gonzalez said. “If they wear them on a daily basis, that’s how they identify themselves. So going to the DMV and getting an identification without a headscarf or needing permission is almost like stripping down one’s identity.”
Cowan said making a resolution to send to the state legislature seemed like the best thing he could do for the student and everyone else in Idaho who has been turned away at the DMV.
“As a representative for the students, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we’re doing the best that we can to make every student feel welcome in our community regardless of their beliefs,” Cowan said.
If the resolution is passed at this week’s senate meeting, a copy of the resolution will be sent to each elected member of the Idaho State Legislature, the Office of the University of Idaho President and the Office of Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter.
Amber Emery can be reached at email@example.com