By Heath Griner
VALDOSTA — The Muslim woman who was denied access to the Valdosta Municipal Courtroom for wearing a traditional Islamic headscarf won’t comment on the city’s official response because she hasn’t reviewed it yet.
Aniisa Karim, 20, is aware, however, of some of the sentiments directed at her since the June 26 incident drew publicity.
Some have urged Karim to “go home” if she doesn’t approve of how the United States runs its judicial system.
Karim, an African-American, was born and raised in Baltimore. The United States has always been her home. “I was born here, my parents were born here, my grandparents were born here ...”
The lifelong Muslim moved to Valdosta in August and has been working as a disc jockey for a local hip-hop radio station.
The day of her court hearing to contest a speeding ticket, Karim said a security officer told her that she would not be permitted to enter the courtroom with her scarf on even after she explained to the security officer that her religion doesn’t permit the scarf’s removal in public. Karim said she offered to walk through the metal detectors and allow security officers to scan the scarf with handheld metal detectors.
Karim said she asked officers what her options were since she was not removing the scarf in public. She said the officers called out a court clerk who told Karim that she would be permitted to reschedule her hearing for a future date, but she would still not be permitted to wear her scarf.
Believing she had no other options, Karim pleaded nolo contendere and paid the $168 fine in the courthouse lobby.
Then, acting on the advice of a friend, she contacted the Council of American-Islamic Relations, a prominent national Islamic civil rights and advocacy group. CAIR issued a statement, followed days later by the Anti-Defamation League’s Atlanta office.
When contacted by The Times on June 29, Municipal Court Judge Vernita Lee Bender forwarded all questions
regarding the incident to City Attorney Tim Tanner, who said he was not prepared to discuss the incident until he had reviewed all of the details.
The city’s public information officer, Sementha Mathews, emailed a statement to The Times Tuesday evening, July 3.
The brief statement said, “This is an unfortunate situation. We have been contacted by the appropriate parties and have been asked not to release a statement until further discussions can be completed. We are hopeful that an understanding will be reached that will be satisfactory to everyone involved.”
Mathews emailed The Times an official statement from the city Thursday evening, July 5. The statement said that through discussions with a representative of the Georgia Association of Muslim Lawyers in Atlanta, a meeting has been scheduled for this coming week to review the city’s policy on headwear in the Valdosta Municipal Court.
The Times contacted Mathews Friday to determine the scheduled meeting’s date and time.
“I don’t know when any of that information will be available,” Mathews said.
The public information officer also stated she did not know which city officials were scheduled to meet with the Georgia Association of Muslim Lawyers’ representative.
Asked for further clarification, Mathews, referring to the city’s statement, said, “I feel like it is very clear in that last paragraph.”
Times editor Kay Harris contacted City Manager Larry Hanson, who stated that a meeting had been scheduled late Friday afternoon and Mathews was unaware of the specifics at the time she spoke with the newspaper. The meeting is planned for Wednesday, according to Hanson, but as he and four members of the city council will be in Washington, D.C. from Monday to Thursday, and Mayor John Fretti is scheduled to be out of town as well, those representing the city at the meeting will include Judge Bender and the city attorney. Hanson indicated he and other city officials have been in a number of meetings this week over the issue and he is hopeful that all parties will be satisfied following Wednesday’s meeting.
• City explains policy on headwear in Municipal Court and responds to June 26 incident
This statement is in response to an incident involving Aniisa Karim at the City of Valdosta Municipal Court. The City of Valdosta regrets that Karim was offended by the necessary rules and procedures that are in place to protect the safety of the court and the public but feels court personnel acted within reason and in accordance with the law. This statement is meant to clarify the policies governing the Municipal Court and correct certain statements that have been made regarding the incident.
On June 26, 2007, Aniisa Karim was scheduled to appear at a 9 a.m. arraignment on traffic charges. Karim was not scheduled for trial. Arraignment is primarily designed for a Defendant to advise the court whether they wish to plead guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere.
As she entered the Municipal Court building, Karim was advised that court policy prohibited the wearing of hats, scarves or headwear in the court. After being
requested to remove her headwear and scarf, Karim refused. Prior to court staff advising Karim that she could momentarily remove the headwear and scarf to be searched, Karim stated that she would not remove her headwear for anyone. Karim’s alleged offer to allow a female law enforcement officer to inspect her headwear prior to entering the court was not made to court personnel.
The city of Valdosta is satisfied that court personnel were acting in good faith and in accordance with their respective understanding of their duties and responsibilities. There were, obviously, some misunderstandings involving the situation. Karim chose to plead to the charges. If Karim chooses to withdraw the plea and face trial, she is free to do so within the confines of applicable law. Whatever decision she makes, she and all those who have a case in the Municipal Court can be assured of a fair and unbiased hearing and to be treated with dignity and respect.
Concerning the court policy on hats and clothing, it is a longstanding policy that evolved from general courtroom etiquette and decorum much the same as the rule that prohibits individuals from wearing short pants or other inappropriate clothing in the courtroom. Unfortunately, as times have changed, the primary purpose for this rule has changed as well. Security now is the chief purpose behind the rule, and security checkpoints are necessary for the safety of court staff, defendants, witnesses and spectators. The Valdosta Municipal Court is fortunate to have metal detectors in place; however, such devices only detect metal. Many other materials can be hidden in or under clothing that could be used to harm others in court. In fact, officers of the court have examples in their possession of plastic items that can demonstrate the ineffectiveness of metal detectors. The court policy is a necessary measure that applies to all, regardless of a citizen’s gender, race or religion.
The Valdosta Municipal Court is always open to suggestions for improvement and, in fact, through discussions with a representative of the Georgia Association of Muslim Lawyers in Atlanta, a meeting has been scheduled next week to review the policy in question.
Again the City of Valdosta regrets that Karim was offended by the necessary rules and procedures that are in place to protect the safety of the court and the public but feels court personnel acted within reason and in accordance with the law. The City of Valdosta will continue to implement security measures that will not only provide for a safe court environment, but will also accommodate, to the extent reasonably possible, the varying religious practices of individuals.