A Muslim woman who lives in Tulsa filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday alleging the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office violated her First Amendment rights in forcing her to remove her hijab in public to gain entry into the district courthouse.
Suha Elqutt suffered humiliation, shame, mental anguish and emotional distress on April 10 because deputies infringed upon her right to free exercise of her “sincerely-held religious beliefs,” according to the lawsuit.
The Sheriff’s Office is constitutionally required to “make reasonable accommodations for sincerely-held religious beliefs, such as the practice of covering one’s head, hair, and neck in the presence of men,” the lawsuit states.
Attorneys with the Council on American-Islamic Relations Oklahoma chapter and the ACLU of Oklahoma filed the lawsuit Tuesday. They announced they would file in a Monday news release, alleging Elqutt was “forced to remove her hijab in public and in the presence of several male deputies.”
Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Roebuck on Monday disputed the two groups recounting of events.
“I’m familiar with it and can tell you none of that is true,” Roebuck said.
The lawsuit contends the two female deputies agreed Elqutt could remove her hijab — a head scarf — in between two parked vehicles in a lot about 10 to 15 feet away from the courthouse entrance.
“At any moment, a man could have walked by and seen Ms. Elqutt without her hijab, a fact not lost on her as she squatted, exposed and humiliated, in the middle of the courthouse parking lot,” the lawsuit states.
Brady Henderson, executive director of ACLU Oklahoma, in a news conference Tuesday clarified that it was only after Elqutt was squatting that she and her attorney saw the male deputies watching her through the glass windows of the courthouse.
Sheriff Vic Regalado is sued in his official capacity, with several deputies named as defendants in their individual and official capacities. He said during a press conference Monday afternoon that courthouse security is a top priority.
“We treat everyone the same,” he said.
Elqutt was at the Tulsa County District Courthouse with her attorney from the Domestic Violence Intervention Services between about 1:15 and 1:30 p.m. April 10 to obtain a divorce decree.
A security wand was set off when a male deputy moved it around her head, even after Elqutt had removed her earrings and pin holding her hijab in place, the lawsuit contends. Her attorney, Sadie Temple, asked the deputy if he could pat down her head to inspect for prohibited items rather than remove her hijab because it is a “thin, scarf-like material” that would “easily” reveal items during a pat-down.
Elqutt and Temple told the male deputy that Elqutt was agreeable to remove her hijab but it is against her religious beliefs to do so in the presence of men, so she would only do it in private with a female deputy, according to the lawsuit.
The male deputy allegedly threatened “trouble” for Elqutt if she didn’t comply.
Regalado said it is “regrettable” that Elqutt didn’t simply remove the metal hair clip as is customary in those situations. He also required deputies undergo diversity training when he took office and noted he is proactive in reaching out to diverse communities.
The lawsuit contends several deputies were called to the scene and told Elqutt and Temple that an inspection in private by a female deputy wasn’t an option, that she must remove it in the security line in front of the male deputies and any other nearby men.
“Ms. Temple informed the deputies that they were violating her client’s First Amendment rights before she and Ms. Elqutt both exited the building, having been effectively denied entry by Defendants,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit said the two discussed their options outside for about 10 minutes when two female deputies came outside.
“The two female deputies denied Ms. Elqutt’s request for privacy but said they would inspect her in the outside public space in front of the glass courthouse doors near the security entrance,” according to the lawsuit, before both parties agreed to go between vehicles in the parking lot.
Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Roebuck on Monday said security wands were used by deputies detected metal near the woman’s head. Roebuck said the deputies then requested two female deputies to assist in verifying there were no weapons.
The female deputies escorted Elqutt to an area outside the courthouse, near the building’s basement entrance, and asked Elqutt to lift her hijab “out of view” of the male deputies, Roebuck said.
Regalado said deputies discussed where best to grant her privacy to remove the hijab so the female deputies could search her. They decided “best place under the circumstances” was just outside the courthouse between two cars that was out of sight of male deputies and general public.
Roebuck said there are no locations inside the courthouse for private security screenings.