Woman forced to remove hijab for mugshot wins $100K — and photos ‘destroyed,’ lawyer says

When a devout Muslim woman pleaded with Tennessee deputies to allow her to keep her hijab on for a booking photo, they refused, according to a newly settled federal lawsuit.

Sophia Johnston was threatened with indefinite jail time in August if she didn’t remove her hijab for the mugshot as she was booked in Rutherford County on a six-year-old outstanding warrant connected to driving on a suspended license, the lawsuit said.

She saw no other option but to comply, as she has eight children and “could not afford to be incarcerated indefinitely,” according to a complaint.

Five men were present when she removed her hijab for the photo, the lawsuit said.

Before that day, no man outside of Johnston’s family had seen her hair since she was a child — as that would go against her religious beliefs, McClatchy News previously reported.

The lawsuit accused the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, which published her mugshot online, of denying her request for religious accommodation.

Now the county has agreed to pay Johnston $100,000 to settle the case, her lead attorney Daniel A. Horwitz said in a Jan. 24 news release.

The county has also “destroyed” her mugshots, Horwitz said.

McClatchy News contacted attorneys representing the county for comment Jan. 25 and didn’t receive an immediate response.

“This is a historic win for Ms. Johnston and her entire religious community,” Horwitz said in a statement.

“Citizens have the right to practice their religion without unreasonable governmental interference, and we are proud to have vindicated Ms. Johnston’s rights and secured permanent policy changes that will prevent violations like this from recurring,” he added.

County updates booking and jail policies

As a result of the case, the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office has updated its booking and jail policies as of Jan. 24.

Its new “Religious Accommodations for Head Coverings During Booking Process” policy requires employees “to respect the religious beliefs and practices” of people in their custody.

Sheriff’s office employees are to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of those being arrested and inmates as long as it “does not create a safety risk or undue hardship on the (sheriff’s office),” the policy says.

When it comes to religious headwear, like hijabs, “arrestees and citation recipients are not required to remove religious head coverings for booking photos as long as the view of the face and profile are not obstructed by religious attire,” according to the new policy.

The sheriff’s office deleted all booking photos of Johnston without her hijab from its records on Jan. 19, according to a Jan. 22 court filing. Surveillance footage of Johnston without the hijab has also been deleted.

Johnston had hoped to accomplish this with her lawsuit, McClatchy News reported.

After Johnston’s arrest for a minor criminal charge in August, the charge has been dismissed, Horwitz said.

Rutherford County is about 40 miles southeast of Davidson County, where Nashville is located.

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