A Rockford woman is suing the Illinois secretary of state in an attempt to change a state rule requiring those who wear a religious head covering in their driver’s license photo to also certify that they do not normally remove that head covering in public.
Maryjane Bicksler, 68, filed the lawsuit this week in Chicago federal court with the help of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The suit states that Bicksler, who is Muslim and wears a hijab, went to her local DMV in Rockford to renew her driver’s license in July. She then was asked to sign a form saying that if the DMV received evidence that she does not wear her hijab in public, her driver’s license would be canceled.
Bicksler said when she asked to take a photo of the form, she was refused.
“That made me feel like something wasn’t right, it was suspicious to me,” Bicksler said in an interview. “Were they going to put my name on a special list? Was there going to be a Muslim hijabi list in Springfield so they could identify us all later for some reason? It just didn’t feel good.”
Illinois policy states that an ID photo should feature the full face with no head covering. Religious headwear, like a hijab or a pagri (a Sikh turban), is allowed as long as it doesn’t cover the face. A second part of the regulation states that the person must sign an acknowledgement that he or she does not typically “remove the head dressing in public as a matter of courtesy or protocol.”
The second part of that policy has been criticized by CAIR since 2017, when another person had the same experience, said attorney Phil Robertson, who is representing Bicksler. He said the organization has been trying to work with the secretary of state to change the language and reached out as recently as January, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration took office.
“We understand that they would ask for a statement that this is a sincerely held religious belief. That’s OK, we’ve seen that in many other states,” Robertson said. “But the regulations in the form go further than that, and that’s what we have an issue with. We’ve been trying to work with the office to adjust the language to make it less ambiguous and more workable, and they unfortunately have not agreed to any of the changes.”
The lawsuit calls for the language in the regulation to be more specific so that it is not intrusive.
“We want clarification on when (removing headwear) is OK and when is it not. The way it is now, it goes beyond what the First Amendment allows them to do,” Robertson said. “There are myriad reasons where it would be merited, or even chosen or decided, for a hijab to be removed publicly.”
A spokesperson at the Illinois secretary of state’s office said the office cannot comment on pending litigation.
For Bicksler, who worked as a community organizer for almost 20 years and converted to Islam in 2003, when she wears her hijab is an issue of personal understanding and choice.
“Once I decided I wanted to become a Muslim, I studied over a year, because I knew I would wear a scarf and I knew that, my job being in rural Illinois, people were going to wonder why I was wearing this scarf. It was a commitment I made immediately when I decided I would be a Muslim,” Bicksler said.
“But some nights when I have to take my young son to work, it’s dark and we’re rushing out the door, I don’t put it on. It’s very seldom. It feels like when you forget a ring or your watch, but it happens.”
In 2015, the secretary of state’s office sent flyers to DMV employees to remind them people do not have to remove religious headwear when taking official photos. The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund partnered with CAIR to encourage this action, and both organizations worked with the secretary of state’s office, even lending staff members to pose for photos for the flyers.
At that time, Robertson said, the form Bicksler was asked to sign was not discussed.
Rules about head coverings in official photos differ from state to state. According to a 2005 CAIR report by former research director Mohamed Nimer, the trend of accommodating different religions in ID and license photos increased after Sept. 11.
“At that time, there were cases from Muslim women who were encouraged to take off their headscarves for these photos. That was the main complaint at the time, and we wrote the report so that states could learn from each other,” said Nimer, who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. “It seems here that they’re trying to stay in the loop on someone’s religious beliefs. What happens when a woman changes her view of what the hijab is — does she report that to the DMV?”
Other states, and other kinds of faith practitioners, are also dealing with similar issues when trying to clarify how to address religious beliefs in official identification.
In Alabama, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a similar complaint in 2016 on behalf of a Christian woman who was asked to remove her head covering for a driver’s license photo. She was told the rule allowing for religious headwear only applied to Muslim women. That same year in Maine, a Pagan priest was allowed to keep his religious headwear — goat horns — for a driver’s license photo, after explaining to the DMV how and why they are religious.
Bicksler, who said the experience made her angry, had her own specific request:
“That there is no form for any Muslim to sign.”