Religious Law

Michigan Supreme Court Mulls Rule on Witness Attire

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Michigan’s highest court is weighing whether to adopt a guideline that would give lower court judges wide discretion when it comes to controlling witness attire. But civil rights advocates are pressing the court to include an exception for religious dress.

Consideration of the new court rule was prompted by a 2006 case filed by Ginnah Muhammad, a Muslim, the Detroit News reports. District Judge Paul Paruk dismissed the case when Muhammad declined to remove her face veil during testimony. He asserted that he needed to see her face to determine her truthfulness. But, at the time, Muhammad argued that her faith required her to keep her veil on.

Muhammad complained in federal court that her right to access courts had been violated. But that case was dismissed and the issue tossed back to Michigan courts.

A hearing on the proposal to revise Michigan Rule of Evidence 611 is set for Tuesday morning in Lansing.

“The proposed amendment would clarify that a judge is entitled to establish reasonable standards regarding the appearance of parties and witnesses, to evaluate the demeanor of those individuals and to ensure accurate identification,” the staff of the state Supreme Court wrote in a comment on the proposed change.

The ACLU, however, would like the rule to be further adapted to allow an exception for those whose clothing is dictated by religious faith.

“The Michigan Supreme Court should not slam the door of justice on a category of women just because of their religious belief,” Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, is quoted saying. “Under the proposed rule, women who are sexually assaulted do not have their day in court if they wear a veil mandated by their religion.”

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