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On The Front Lines

Hearing on Case of Female Fighter Pilot Forced to Wear Muslim Garb to Take Place in Federal District Court on Wed., April 24

Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute Defend Lt. Col. Martha McSally's Right to Equal Protection and Freedom of Religion and Speech

--In federal district court this Wednesday, April 24, 2002, at 10:00 a.m., EST, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute will challenge the Department of Defense's motion to dismiss Lt. Col. Martha McSally's lawsuit against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

McSally, a decorated pilot with the U.S. Air Force, filed suit in December 2001 to overturn a U.S. military policy that requires servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia, when traveling off-base, to wear the Muslim abaya, a black head-to-toe robe worn in certain Muslim cultures and perceived as a sign of subordination to men. The policy also requires that a woman be accompanied by a man and sit in the rear seat of any vehicle containing more than two passengers. McSally claims the policy violates her constitutional rights to equal protection and the freedoms of religion and speech. Neither the U.S. State Department nor the government of Saudi Arabia requires American service members to wear traditional Muslim attire. In fact, the Saudis do not require non-Muslim women to wear the abaya at all. And U.S. male service personnel in Saudi Arabia are prohibited from wearing traditional Muslim clothing while off base.

In filing its motion to dismiss McSally's lawsuit, the Department of Defense claims to have resolved the issue by changing the policy's language from "mandatory" to "strongly encouraged." But attorneys for The Rutherford Institute say that language still presents concerns about coercion of female military service personnel. Institute attorneys are also charging the Pentagon with retaliatory treatment toward McSally as a result of her opposition to these discriminatory policies. After she challenged the policies, Lt. Col. McSally's performance review was less than favorable for the first time in her military career, and her superiors refused to recommend her for a command position. Furthermore, Institute attorneys point out that the U.S. government continues to purchase and issue Muslim garb for American servicewomen, a clear violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

"In military culture, 'strongly encouraged' is perceived as tantamount to a direct order, allowing the Department of Defense to continue its discriminatory policy under another name," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "We are hopeful the Court will see past this charade and order the case to move forward."

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

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Nisha N. Mohammed
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Email: Nisha N. Mohammed