Protection of Religious Freedom in Oklahoma

Media 03.30,09

Recipient: Oklahoma State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Cliff Branan

The Honorable Cliff Branan
Chairman, Transportation Committee
Oklahoma State Senate
2300 N. Lincoln Blvd., Rm. 417C
Oklahoma City, OK 73105

Re: Protection of Religious Freedom in Oklahoma (HB1645)

Dear Senator Branan:

We, the undersigned individuals and entities, are writing to express grave concern about the passage of a bill (HB1645) in the Oklahoma House of Representatives that aims to “strictly prohibit” individuals from wearing “head scarves” and “head garments” in driver’s license photographs.  This legislation needlessly threatens to undermine religious freedom in your state, and it is our understanding that the bill has been referred to the Transportation Committee in the Oklahoma State Senate.  Because you serve as Chairman of this committee, we encourage you and your colleagues to defend religious freedom for all Americans and repudiate HB1645.  

As reported widely in the press, the bill contemplates a categorical ban on religious headcoverings in driver’s license photographs.  As a result, the religious rights of observant Sikhs who wear dastaars (Sikh turbans) are in jeopardy. Observant Jews, Muslims, and Christians are also threatened, as are other individuals who are required to wear religious headcoverings.  This proposal is fundamentally misguided.  Apart from constituting a substantial burden on the religious rights of individuals, who wear headcoverings in public as a matter of religious obligation, HB1645 defeats the very policy that it purports to uphold—that driver’s license photographs should reflect the way people ordinarily look to facilitate identification by law enforcement. 

The overwhelming majority of state motor vehicles departments—and the U.S. State Department, in the context of passport photographs—permit individuals to wear religious headcoverings in identification photographs.  HB1645 accordingly constitutes a departure from the settled practice of the United States.  Were this bill to become law, we believe it would constitute a violation of both the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act and federal civil rights laws.  Apart from being illegal, the manner in which the bill was proposed (without consultation with all affected religious communities) smacks of irresponsibility and raises questions about the true motives behind its introduction.

For the foregoing reasons, our hope and expectation is that you and your colleagues in the Oklahoma State Senate will defend religious freedom for all people in your state and reject HB1645.

Respectfully submitted,

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund