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Judge says 'no' to kufi in courtroom

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

A DeKalb County man, who is Muslim, believes his religious freedom has been violated a Henry County state court judge.

Troy Tariq Montgomery, 46, a Dekalb County barber, said he has tried to resolve a traffic ticket on three separate occasions, but his efforts have been stalled in the courtroom of Henry County State Court Judge James T. Chaffin, because of the kufi [hat] he wears.

The judge has said he does not permit "headwear or tats (tatoos) in his courtroom," said Montgomery's attorney, Mawuli Mel Davis.

Montgomery said the wearing of his kufi is part of the religion he embraces, and he will not take it off. Henry County State Court Chief Judge Ben Studdard will be asked to intervene next week to settle the matter, according to Montgomery's attorney. "We will be filing a motion sometime next week, and then the judge will set a hearing date," said Davis.

Montgomery got his speeding ticket while driving on Jonesboro Road. He went to court on April 1, April 12, and most recently on May 5, said his attorney.

"I came into the courtroom and the bailiff motioned for me to take off my Kufi," said Montgomery, during his first appearance in April. "I shook my head ,no, and then he addressed me and said I had to remove my ‘headdress' –– is what he called it.

"I responded telling him, I was not going to remove it because it was my religious right not to remove it, and then he said I had to leave the courtroom, if I didn't remove it," Montgomery added.

Montgomery said he left the courtroom, and waited outside, in the lobby, until Judge Chaffin came into the courtroom and asked him to approach the bench. He then said he was asked what was he wearing.

"He said, ‘is that a head dress?'" said Montgomery. "I responded, yes. He asked me was it for religious purposes, and I said, yes."

The judge questioned which religion was Montgomery representing. "I said Islam," Montgomery said he replied.

Judge Chaffin then told Montgomery he would have to show the court legal documentation stating Montgomery could wear the kufi in the courtroom, according to Montgomery and his attorney. The judge continued the case, until April 12, to allow Montgomery to obtain the necessary documentation requested.

On his second attempt to answer the speeding charge, Montgomery said he gave the judge what he deemed was the necessary documentation.

"He provided the judge with a documentation regarding the Judicial Council of Georgia," said Davis. "They established a policy allowing the wearing of head covering throughout the state of Georgia."

The Georgia Judicial Council is a state-level judicial agency charged with developing policies for administering and improving the courts. Montgomery's attorney argues that Judge Chaffin is stifling his client's ability to access the court, and that is a violation of his client's religious freedom.

Montgomery said although Judge Chaffin was "very courteous," the judge told him the information he provided was insufficient.

Efforts to reach Judge Chaffin for comment were unsuccessful.

"He [the judge] said it did not show him anywhere, where it was legal for me to wear a head covering in court," said Montgomery.

The state court judge cited a Douglas County case involving Lisa Valentine, said Montgomery. Valentine was arrested after she refused to remove her headscarf in a West Georgia courtroom. She filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Douglasville and the officers who arrested her in 2009. Her arrest forced the Judicial Council of Georgia to overhaul courtroom policy. They voted to allow religious and medical headgear into Georgia courtrooms.

The action of the state judicial body held no sway with Chaffin, however, according to the attorney.

"He said he still does not see anywhere where it says anything about the men. After that, he asked me to show him something in the Koran that makes it mandatory for men to wear the Kufi," said Montgomery. "All I said was. ‘OK,' because I knew there was nothing in the Koran that shows it is an obligation, to wear the Kufi, so I believe there was something underlining his request."

"I think he wanted to show evidence I didn't have any proof in terms of wearing the Kufi being an obligation, whereas with the women wearing the head covering it is an obligation," said Montgomery, who converted to Islam in 1997.

Chaffin gave Montgomery another continuance in the case for May 5.

"That's when we took on Mr. Montgomery's case, we felt as though it was a constitutional issue, he had a right to wear his religious attire in court," said Davis. Davis said he attempted to persuade the judge that Montgomery did not need to provide anything out of the Koran or any other religious source.

"The judge was courteous, but disagreed. At that point, I suggested that I be allowed to file a motion to address the issue of Mr. Montgomery's Islamic attire being permitted in court," said Davis. "The judge was polite and granted a motion for continuance for me to argue the motion before the Chief Judge of Henry County State Court, Ben Studdard."