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A Kentucky jail made a Muslim woman remove her hijab and televised her strip search in its lobby, lawsuit alleges

By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN

(CNN) — A Muslim mother of two, who was detained at a Kentucky jail earlier this year, says she was forced to remove her hijab and underwent “an unnecessary full body strip search,” which was “filmed and projected” on a TV screen for men and women in the jail’s lobby to see, according to a lawsuit she has filed.

The woman, identified as Jane Doe in court documents, says in the lawsuit the search violated Warren County Regional Jail’s own procedures and also alleges her booking photo, which shows her without the hijab, remains online in a public inmate database, seven months after her arrest.

The lawsuit alleges officers violated Doe’s constitutional rights to religious freedom, subjected her to unreasonable search and seizure and deprived her of equal protection under the law. It seeks a jury trial, changes in jail procedures and unspecified damages.

“Appearing in public without hijab or being photographed without wearing hijab and having that photo available to the public is a serious breach of Mrs. Doe’s faith and a deeply humiliating and defiling experience in conflict with her sincerely held religious beliefs,” the suit, filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Legal Defense Fund, says. They did not specify the charges or say how they were resolved.

The woman has been wearing a hijab since July 2013, and like many Muslim women, also wears an abaya, a long-sleeved, loose, robe-like dress, the lawsuit states.

The suit singles out four Warren County officials by name for their roles in the detention, which occurred in April, and alleges violations of the woman’s first, fourth and 14th amendment rights.

Doe was detained in April over a domestic dispute that has since been resolved, Doe’s legal representatives, CAIR Trial Attorney Saad Gul and CAIR Legal Fellow Aya Beydoun told CNN Thursday.

Warren County Judge Executive Doug Gorman and Stephen Harmon, the chief jailer at Warren County Regional Jail are named in the suit, along with the deputy jailer, Brook Lindsey Harp; and Benjamin Carroll, an officer at Bowling Green Police Department. Two other jail officers are identified as females but not named.

Nearly identical statements from Gorman and Harmon on behalf of all accused employees acknowledged the lawsuit to CNN Thursday: “Warren County admits there was an incident involving Jane Doe during intake at the Warren County Regional Jail.”

But the statement continues, “The Complaint contains exaggerations and inaccuracies as to the events that took place. Warren County and its employees deny violating Jane Doe’s constitutional rights and state that they acted to safeguard employees and other persons at the jail in a non-discriminatory manner.”

The statements said the county and its employees would defend their actions.

CNN has reached out to an attorney representing the officials for further comment.

The Bowling Green Police Department declined to comment on pending litigation. CNN has reached out to an attorney representing the city, but has not heard back.

Stripped of her clothes – and pride, the suit claims

On April 6, Bowling Green officers, including Carroll, responded to a call at Doe’s home, where she was wearing both her hijab and abaya, according to the lawsuit.

Officers questioned her outside her home and a female officer handcuffed her and placed her in a police vehicle before taking her to the Warren County Regional Jail, the suit states.

During the drive, she informed Carroll that she needed to keep her hijab on in accordance with her religious beliefs, the lawsuit states, adding that she worried jail attire would conflict with her headscarf. It says Carroll didn’t answer her questions about jail attire.

Because Doe’s arrest happened during the Ramadan religious holiday, when she arrived at the jail and began the booking process, she was offered an Iftar meal at sunset when she would break her fast, to which she agreed, documents show.

After the booking process, Doe received a pat down search with her clothes on from an unidentified female officer, was questioned and her handcuffs were removed, the lawsuit states. Then Doe was told by the officer that “a more thorough search of her person which would involve removing her clothes” would need to happen, and that it “would occur in a private room and the jail would provide her with a uniform to put on afterward.”

“Believing this was standard procedure, and with the understanding that it would be done in a private room with only one female officer present, Mrs. Doe did not argue and agreed to the search,” according to the lawsuit.

Warren County Jail policy states strip searches will only be done by a person of the same sex as the detained person and only when authorized by the sheriff and after a court order from a judge, according to the Warren County Sheriff’s Department.

But the suit alleges that an officer never obtained a court order from a judge before conducting her strip search.

The policy further states no fewer than two officers should be present during a search and that it is to be conducted in an area where others cannot see it. The lawsuit alleges only one female officer was present during the search and that others were able to see it.

After the search, Doe donned her hijab again and had to push to be given a long-sleeved shirt to wear under the jail-issued uniform, instead of short sleeves, which violated her religious requirement to be fully clothed, the lawsuit states.

While Doe waited to have her booking photo taken, she was asked to wait on a bench in the jail’s lobby. The lawsuit states that’s when she realized there was a TV screen “hung right above the door where she had been strip searched” and it was streaming footage from inside the room and facing the lobby, for all in the room to see.

The suit contends she “felt mortified, degraded, violated, and humiliated,” to think individuals in the hallway and lobby might have seen her nude during the strip search, a violation of her religious beliefs, which require her to wear clothes that cover her body in front of anyone she doesn’t know.

‘Memorialized in a permanent way,’ the violation of religious rights, suit says

Before Doe was taken for her booking photo, she was told policy required her to remove her hijab in the facility. Despite her pleas and visible sobbing, she was told by officers she would need to remove it, the lawsuit alleges.

An officer took Doe’s photo without her hijab on and per the jail’s policy uploaded the photo to the public online jail management database, the lawsuit states, where it remains. CNN has not been able to independently verify that claim.

“Every moment that photo remains on Warren County Regional Jail’s website perpetuates the harm and anguish suffered by Mrs. Doe,” Beydoun said in a news release about the lawsuit. “It is a permanent record and consistent reminder of the violations to Mrs. Doe’s privacy and religious beliefs.”

Doe’s attorneys also believe the jail still has the recording of her strip search in its records, Beydoun said.

Calls for a change in policy

As part of her suit, Doe is calling for a change in policy, the suit states.

“WCRJ has no written policy forbidding its employees from removing detainees’ religious head coverings or describing scenarios when detainees would be permitted to wear religious headwear or other clothing,” the suit states.

But around 150 miles north of Warren County, the Lexington-Fayette County Detention Center changed its policy regarding religious clothing after a Muslim woman was forced to take off her hijab during her booking process in July, CNN affiliate WLEX reported at the time.

The chief of corrections told WLEX that CAIR was instrumental in policy revisions there that allow religious head coverings, including Islamic hijabs, Jewish kippas and Sikh turbans. When religious clothing must be removed for security, it will occur in a private setting in the presence of a corrections officer who is the same sex as the detained person. Booking photos will now be taken of those detained with head coverings, provided the person’s face can remain fully visible.

Doe’s suit encourages Warren County to follow the same guidance, and calls for any images and video footage of the incident to be destroyed.

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