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‘Take it off! This is America!’: Man who yanked hijab pleads guilty to religious obstruction

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 waits to take off at Chicago’s Midway Airport. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Near the end of his Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Albuquerque in December, Gill Parker Payne decided he had to take action.

Seated a few rows in front of him was a woman he had never met before. She was wearing a religious headscarf, known as a hijab, which Payne recognized as a Muslim practice. He stood up, walked down the aisle and stopped next to her seat. Looking down at the woman, Payne instructed her to remove the covering.

“Take it off! This is America!” Payne, 37, later recalled saying. When she didn’t do it herself, Payne did: He grabbed the hijab from the back and pulled it all off. Violated, the woman, identified by the Justice Department only as K.A., quickly pulled the hijab back over her head.

Muslim women are the targets in 80 percent of anti-Muslim hate crimes reported in the U.S. One group is helping Muslim-American women in hijab protect themselve (Video: Reuters)

On Friday, as part of a plea deal with the federal government, Payne pleaded guilty to obstructing the woman’s exercise of her religious beliefs. “Because I forcibly removed K.A.’s hijab, I admit that the United States can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I intentionally obstructed K.A.’s free exercise of her religious beliefs,” he said in a written statement in the plea agreement.

Payne awaits sentencing. Typically, the maximum penalty under the law for the offense is one year in jail and a fine of up to $100,000, but under the agreement the federal government agreed to two months of home detention, a to-be-determined probation and a possible fine.

“No matter one’s faith, all Americans are entitled to peacefully exercise their religious beliefs free from discrimination and violence,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a statement. “Using or threatening force against individuals because of their religion is an affront to the fundamental values of this nation.”

FBI data show that hate crimes against nearly every group fell from 2004 to 2014, The Washington Post’s Chris Ingraham reported last year. Anti-Muslim hate crimes are the only exception, remaining nearly unchanged: There were 156 in 2004 and 154 in 2014.

The Bridge Initiative, a Georgetown University research project focused on Islamophobia, found in a report this month that anti-Muslim violence and vandalism rose last year to from 154 to 174 reported incidents. The 2015 incidents included 12 murders, 29 physical assaults, eight arsons, nine shootings or bombings, and 50 threats against people or institutions.

That finding is in line with other, similar analyses. Hate crimes against Muslim Americans and mosques multiplied in the weeks after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., according data that the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, a California State University research group, provided to the New York Times last December.