The state of Illinois is about to start sending fliers to offices that issue drivers licenses and photo IDs to remind employees and the public that people are not required to remove religious garments that cover their heads for photos. The flier tells us:
The Secretary of State’s office recognizes and respects the increasing diversity of religions practiced by Illinois residents. Members of many religions, such as Islam and Sikhism, wear religious head coverings, also known as articles of faith.
While hats or head coverings are generally prohibited from being worn in photographs used on Illinois driver’s licenses and identification cards, customers may be photographed while wearing established religious head coverings. Photographs increase public safety. Examples of acceptable religious head coverings can be found in this flier.
The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) took the issue to Illinois' Secretary of State's office about a year ago after Sikh community members complained that they had been asked to remove their dastaars, the turban Sikhs wear around their heads.
"A little over a year ago we had been getting complaints from around the states from Sikh Americans who were being asked to remove or modify their turbans to get their photo ID," said Jasjit Singh, SALDEF's Executive Director.
SALDEF consulted with the Chicago chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other local advocacy groups and found that Muslims in Illinois were also being asked to remove their religious head coverings (hijabs or niqabs worn by some women). At that point, they decided they needed to take the issue to the Illinois state government, and worked with the Illinois Secretary of State.
A spokesperson for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White emphasized that it was already illegal to ask people to remove their head coverings.
"No change has actually taken place to our procedures. What we're doing was always allowed the religious head coverings of this nature but what we want to ensure is that the public's aware of them because we were told that some individuals were unaware that they could have their photo taken for the drivers license wearing them," said Henry Haupt, Deputy Press Secretary for the Secretary of State's office. "We're always mindful of the fact that we want to communicate well with the public."
Asked if the campaign was also about educating people who worked at DMVs and other offices, he said, "They should know what our policies and procedures are, but certainly this effort will help to educate everybody." The flier campaign comes a week after the third anniversary of a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in which six people were killed by a white supremacist.
SALDEF has been working to introduce people to Sikh American culture in a wider effort to combat discrimination, with campaigns like this Public Service Announcement broadcast on Comcast for three months last year:
They also conducted a study, published in 2013 with Stanford University, titled "Turban Myths", examining public perception and misconceptions about Sikh identity.
"Hopefully these sort of challenges don't take place. We'll continue to challenge them as they come up like in this case but we're really trying to address the problem," said SALDEF's Jasjit Singh.
SALDEF's policy director Navdeep Singh said the move in Illinois could set an example for other states to clarify their laws and educate government workers and the public.
"What's important to recognize is the leadership of the Secretary of State's office here in recognizing the diversity of residents of Illinois," he said, adding that the fliers are inclusive of different minorities, not just Sikhs. "That's a model for other states and other agencies which issue ID cards to follow as they try to comply with requirements around photo IDs," he said.