A federal appeals court ruled in San Francisco today that Orange County officials were entitled to require a Muslim woman to remove her headscarf when she was held in a courthouse holding cell four years ago.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said by a 2-1 vote that a brief stay in a holding cell is not covered by a federal religious freedom law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The court ruled in the case of Souhair Khatib, an emigrant from Lebanon who said in her federal lawsuit that her Islamic religious beliefs required her to wear a headscarf covering her hair and neck.

Khatib was required by county officials to remove her headscarf while she was confined to a courthouse holding cell for a few hours on July 29, 2006, while awaiting a probation violation hearing.

Khatib and her husband had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor welfare violation and had come to the Orange County courthouse to seek a deadline extension for completing their community service probation requirement.

She was told by a holding cell deputy that her headscarf was a security risk because it could be used to choke her, according to an earlier ruling in the case.

The religious freedom law, enacted by Congress in 2000, is intended to protect the rights of people in institutions such as prisons and mental health facilities as well as the rights of churches affected by zoning laws.

But the appeals court majority said a holding cell doesn’t qualify as an institution under the law because its purpose is simply to provide a “secure transient environment” for people awaiting hearings.

Judge Stephen Trott wrote, “Such a cell is not a place where persons in custody either reside or are institutionalized.”

The court upheld a similar ruling by a federal trial judge in Los Angeles.

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