Passengers tell TSA: Keep your hands off my religious beliefs

A passenger walks past a sign informing travelers about the use of full-body scanners for TSA security screening, Friday, Nov. 19, 2010, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A passenger walks past a sign informing travelers about the use of full-body scanners for TSA security screening, Friday, Nov. 19, 2010, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — As Erum Ikramullah prepared to head to National Airport late last month for a flight out of Washington, she mulled two distasteful choices: the body scanner or the pat-down?

Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a trip to the airport has been fraught for Muslims, who sometimes think they are being unfairly scrutinized because of their religion. The addition of full-body scanners, which many say violate Islam's requirements for modesty, has upped the stakes, especially for women.

Ikramullah, who is 29 and wears a headscarf, was reluctant to go through the new scanners, which reveal the contours of the human body in glaring detail.

In Islam, "a woman's body and a man's body are both pretty much private," she said. "I choose to cover myself and dress in loose-fitting clothing so the shape of my body is not revealed to everyone in the street."

The other choice, an "enhanced" pat-down in which security agents touch intimate body parts, was hardly more appealing, said the College Park, Md., resident. In recent years, she said, she has been pulled aside for a milder version of the pat-downs almost every time she flies. The reason, she suspects, is her headscarf.

"It can be humiliating when you're standing there and people are walking by, seeing you get the pat-down," she said. "You just feel like you have a target on your head."

Besides Muslims, a number of other religious groups, including Sikhs, Orthodox Jews and some evangelical Christians, also say the measures make them uncomfortable or violate the tenets of their faith.

About 430 advanced-imaging technology machines are in use in the United States, with plans for 1,000, in roughly half the nation's security checkpoint lanes, by the end of 2011.

Lexington's Blue Grass Airport is not scheduled to get the advanced imaging technology any time soon, the Transportation Security Administration told the Herald-Leader recently. In Kentucky, only the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport has the new imaging technology.

Opponents and civil libertarians have likened the scanning to a virtual strip search, and it has caused some people to rethink their travel plans.

"I've had a lot of Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, say they're going to put off travel plans as much as is humanly possible because they just can't take the humiliation of it all," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "They're tired of being singled out for their attire. We have reports of Muslim women in tears."

Earlier in 2010, the Fiqh Council of North America, a body of Muslim jurists who interpret Islamic law for Muslims living in North America, issued a ruling calling the full-body scanners "a violation of clear Islamic teachings that men or women be seen naked by other men and women," adding that the Koran requires believers to "cover their private parts."

But the alternative, the enhanced pat-down, also has posed problems for some people, including Sikhs, who wear turbans as part of their religious observance.

Since 2007, people with "bulky" clothing, including Muslim women in headscarves 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 TSA.

"Removal of all headwear 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.

Those interviewed for this story emphasized that they understand the importance of security for air travel, but some said the determination of what constitutes "bulky clothing" is applied subjectively, with a bias against religious headwear.

"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 Qazi, deputy executive director and staff attorney for CAIR in Los Angeles, who said 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."

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

A lawsuit filed in July by the Electronic Privacy Information Center challenged 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 the center's objections, 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 also has 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.

"For a Sikh, that's akin to a strip search," he said.

Requiring Sikhs to undergo secondary screening even after submitting to the scanners also raises questions about the new machines, Singh said.

The new security measures also have raised concerns among some Orthodox Jews.

"In Jewish law, the issue of modesty is a very fundamental element of Jewish life, and going through a machine that exposes a person's body parts offends a person's religious sensibilities," said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs and Washington director for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization that has worked with the TSA. "It's clearly a picture that exposes private body parts, and I know in our community there would be a great discomfort in going through these machines."

Cohen said Orthodox Jews also have complained about the intrusiveness of the "enhanced" pat-downs. Some married Orthodox women, who hide their hair in public, have been asked to remove their wigs at airport security, he said, adding that he plans to talk with the TSA about the issue.

As for conservative Christians, "there aren't any specific Bible verses that say, 'Thou shalt not be patted down by a government agent just to get on an airplane,' but it would be a question of modesty," said Mike Farris, chancellor of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and a leader in the evangelical movement.

Richard Land, head of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention, which has 16.3 million members, said he has heard "a great deal of consternation and indignation" about the scanners.

"Conservative Southern Baptists, they're talking about the modesty issues," Land said. "The Bible's pretty clear about nakedness not being something which is supposed to be public. It's a disgrace."

He has encouraged Southern Baptists to find alternatives to air travel and to call airlines to let them know why. Comparing it to the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s, he said, "We've got to go to the airlines and make it hurt."