By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
A Muslim woman was asked to leave her place in line at a credit union in Southern Maryland and be served in a back room because the head scarf she wore for religious reasons violated the institution's "no hats, hoods or sunglasses" policy, the woman said yesterday.
The incident at the Navy Federal Credit Union on Saturday was the second in a month for Kenza Shelley, and Muslim advocates fear it could become a problem nationwide as many financial institutions, intent on curbing robberies and identity theft, ban hats and similar items without appropriate accommodations for religious attire.
"This may be the tip of the iceberg," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. "There's got to be a way to work it out so that this security concern does not lead to violations of constitutional rights."
Shelley, 54, who runs a day care out of her home in Lexington Park, said she has used the credit union in the St. Mary's County community of California for more than 10 years. Until February, no employees had complained about her head scarf, which covers her hair but not her face. But a few weeks ago, she said, she was standing in line to deposit a check when an employee asked her to come to the back room, referring to a new policy that prohibited hats, hoods and sunglasses. She complied but asked whether she would have to go through the same process each time she made a transaction.
On Saturday, Shelley said, employees again asked her to come to the back room if she would not remove her head scarf. "No," she recalled telling them, "I want to be served like everybody else."
She left the credit union and called the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which lobbies and advocates for the Muslim community. "There was so many people there, and I was embarrassed," she said.
Tom Lyons, senior vice president for security at Navy Federal, said he was not aware of Shelley's case and could not discuss it specifically. But he defended the credit union's policy, implemented in December, saying it was designed to prevent armed robbery and identity theft. He said it would not be unreasonable for bank employees to ask customers who refused to take off their hats to move to a separate room so they could be identified.
"We want to be able to clearly identify who you are and make sure the transaction is safe," Lyons said. "This is a policy that applies to everybody in the branch. She wasn't singled out. . . . We tried to accommodate her and help her with her transaction and move on."
Lyons said that banks saw a significant increase in robberies last year, especially in the Washington area, and that many banks have instituted similar policies. Navy Federal is among the last to do so, he said. "This is not a new process. It's all over the country."
Fred Solomon, a spokesman for PNC Bank, said all branches have banned hats and other head apparel for more than a year, although the company put signs in their buildings stating as much only in the past six months. He said the reason for the ban is security. He said his tellers receive "special training on what is and isn't religious headgear" and are told not to ask those wearing religious headgear to take it off.
News reports provided by the Council on American-Islamic Relations indicate that two Muslim women in the state of California were refused service when they would not remove their scarves.