Christine M. Flowers: Religious tradition can't trump public safety

GROWING UP, I was fascinated by nuns.

In my early elementary years, many of the sisters that taught at St. Mary and Ancilla Domini academies wore the long habits of yesteryear, with hems that gathered dust and veils that seemed to swallow up everything but their angelic faces.

They were the real-life Audrey Hepburns and Ingrid Bergmans descended from the silver screen to teach me Spanish and science, mathematics and music, diagrams (remember those?) and drama.

A few years later as Vatican II took a much stronger foothold, my religious educators started to wear modified habits that revealed a little bit more of their humanity and femininity - things like stylish bangs, well-turned calves (I know, I wasn't supposed to notice) and necks.

It was all very modern and probably a lot more comfortable for the ladies, but I have to say that I missed the mystery of the traditional habit. In part, it was the way the veil set these Catholic handmaidens apart from the rest of the world. After Salome did her dirty dancing and caused an evangelist to lose his head, it was good to have a positive example for the garment, after all.

But I can tell you this: If someone had decided during my impressionable school years to dress up as a nun in full-length regalia and rob the bank down the street from Merion Mercy, I would have been the first in line to demand a permanent ban on the veils and robes that defined the holy women of my faith.

That's because no tradition, however beloved and imbued with religious significance, trumps the community's right to be safe.

So when a woman dressed in full Muslim garb kidnapped a little girl in West Philadelphia, I couldn't help but remember those nuns. And I wonder how much tougher the police have it trying to identify a veiled kidnapper.

It was only natural that people would start speaking out about the problems created by thieves, kidnappers and murderers who claim a constitutional right to walk among us with their identity cloaked. I remember thinking this a few years ago, when some low-life thieves dressed in Muslim garb attacked Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski in Port Richmond and murdered him with assault weapons they'd hidden in the folds of their burqas.

Of course, not everyone who wears a burqa has criminal intent. Those who legitimately embrace this garment feel empowered by their actions, believing that only God has the right to see them clearly. It is an extreme form of modesty that puzzles many and repels some, but neither of those reasons is enough to ban the veil as if it were, in and of itself, criminal.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy did that in France a few years ago, provoking a groundswell of criticism from our hypocritical Gallic brethren who have a problem with Christianity but did not want to offend the growing Muslim population of la belle patrie.

If there is conversation about banning the burqa out of anti-Muslim sentiment, of course we cannot justify the act. Although I am personally offended by the sight of a woman shrouded in veils as if she were ashamed to show her face, my own opinions are irrelevant.

My opinion counts, however, if that woman who covered her face is actually not a woman, but a man intent on doing harm. Or perhaps she is a woman and wants to engage in some illegal activity that will have devastating repercussions on me, my family or innocent strangers. Strangers like a 5-year-old little girl or a police officer.

In those cases, I want the law to give greater value to my right of safe passage on the subways and sidewalks than to someone's desire to honor God in her particular, and particularly troublesome from a law-enforcement perspective, way.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil-rights groups surely have a different opinion. As a lawyer who deals with Muslim clients on a regular basis, I respect that. What I do not respect or accept is the attempt to turn what is clearly a public-safety issue into a referendum on bigotry (as in hatred of Muslims) or sophistry (as in the First Amendment extends to protecting whatever items of clothing we choose to wear, even when that choice is deadly).

To me, it doesn't matter if a veiled woman raises her voice in Gregorian chant or intones the holy words of the Quran, her right to express her love for God does not extend to endangering the lives of innocents.


Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.