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TSA procedures offend followers of many faiths

Head scarves, turbans

Since 2007, people with "bulky" clothing, including Muslim women in head scarves and Sikh men in turbans, have been required to undergo secondary screenings involving pat-downs. Whether they are willing to go through the new scanners makes no difference, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

"Removal of all head wear is recommended, but the rules accommodate those with religious, medical or other reasons for which the passenger wishes not to remove the item," said Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman. If an officer cannot "reasonably determine that the clothing or head covering is free of a threat item," passengers are referred for additional screening, he said.

People interviewed for this article emphasized that they understand the importance of security for air travel, but some said the determination of what constitutes "bulky clothing" is made subjectively, with a bias against religious headgear.

"Somebody could pass through with a pair of loose pants that is definitely more bulky than a head covering, but the head covering gets secondary screenings," said Ameena Mirza Qazi, deputy executive director and staff attorney for CAIR in Los Angeles, adding that she has urged the TSA to revisit its policies. "The issue is whether it is being treated differently than other items of clothing and why it is being treated differently," she said.

Soule said, "TSA's policies on bulky clothing and head coverings are applied to all passengers regardless of ethnicity or religion."

But Fatima Thompson, a Glen Burnie resident who wears a robelike jilbab and a head scarf, said the policy amounts to profiling. Although the Sept. 11 terrorists and other would-be airplane bombers were dressed in Western clothing, she said, "now they're looking for specific ethnic displays, like beard or hair, and I don't think that's appropriate."

Thompson, 44, said she has heard so many stories of Muslim travelers missing their flights because of extensive pat-downs that she recently opted to drive to Toronto, a 10-hour journey each way, rather than fly.

The singling out of Muslims at the security gate perpetuates negative stereotypes and fuels anti-Islamic sentiment, Hooper said.

"It only adds to the feelings of hostility," he said.

'Akin to a strip search'

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit in July challenging the constitutionality of the scanners, listing among other complaints that use of the machines violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, "offends the sincerely held beliefs of Muslims and other religious groups" and "denies observant Muslims the opportunity to travel by plane in the United States as others are able to do."

In a written response to objections the center voiced before the lawsuit, the TSA said that because passengers may request a pat-down as an alternative, the use of scanners "does not constitute a substantial burden" under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

But Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, which has also been in talks with the TSA, said the practice of secondary screenings for all Sikhs in turbans verges on profiling. Some Sikhs have been told to remove their turbans and put them through the X-ray scanner.


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