Clara Ruplinger
Clara Ruplinger | Photo via her attorney

A Muslim woman arrested during an immigration protest last summer has sued Louisville Metro Corrections and the city, asserting that the forced removal of her hijab for her published mug shot violated her constitutional rights, as well as state and federal laws protecting religious freedom.

Clara Ruplinger was one of the “Heyburn Nine” arrested on last July when they chained themselves together to block the elevators 11 floors below a federal immigration court in protest of the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the southern border.

As she told Insider Louisville in November, male corrections officers forced Ruplinger to remove her headscarf for her mug shot, despite her repeated pleas that this would violate her religious beliefs. The mug shot was then published online by Metro Corrections and used by a local television station.

On Nov. 7, Ruplinger’s attorney sent a letter to Mayor Greg Fischer and the Metro Corrections director stating that her client’s civil rights were blatantly disregarded by city officials and litigation could be filed if corrections did not enact policies to protect the religious rights of future inmates, properly train officers on those policies and “fairly and appropriately compensate” Ruplinger for her treatment.

After trying for months to come to a resolution with the city, Ruplinger’s attorneys Soha Saiyed and Jeremiah Reece filed the lawsuit on her behalf last Thursday in Jefferson Circuit Court, naming Fischer, Metro Corrections and its former director as defendants.

Spokespersons for Fischer and Metro Corrections both told Insider that they have a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

The civil lawsuit asserts that the city not only violated Ruplinger’s First Amendment rights by forcing the removal of her headscarf in front of male guards and continuing to publish that photo to this day, but also violated state and federal related to the religious freedom.

The lawsuit cites the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which provides that “no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise” of an institutionalized person unless it is able to demonstrate that this burden is in the furtherance of a “compelling governmental interest” and is “the least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.

In making its case that the treatment of Ruplinger constituted a substantial burden under this law, the lawsuit cited the fact that Metro Corrections announced a revision to its policies in February that permits detainees to retain religious headwear during booking photography as long as it does not cover the face.

This revision “establishes that the interests attributed to the department’s headscarf removal policies, practices and customs were not legitimate, overriding, or compelling, and that Metro Corrections did not use the least restrictive means to pursue those interests,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also asserts that Ruplinger’s treatment violated the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law passed 2013 that prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs without clear and convincing evidence of a compelling governmental interest in infringing that act by the least restrictive means — along with allowing injured persons to seek damages.

Ruplinger is seeking injunctive relief for the city to be enjoined from continuing to disseminate her photo without the headscarf and the award of compensatory and punitive damages for “physical, mental and emotional pain, suffering and humiliation, now and in the future.”

Ruplinger pleaded guilty in May to criminal trespassing for her protest last summer, paying a fine and serving no jail time. When pleading guilty, she stated to the court that she is “proud to say I stood up and did something while others just watched,” referring to the separation and detainment of children at the border.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]