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St. Paul, Minn. — Under the changes that took effect in July, first-time applicants for Minnesota driver's licenses must show two forms of ID. If a person is in the U.S. on a temporary visa, the visa's expiration date will also appear on their driver's license indicating the driver is a non-citizen. And, photos on driver's licenses must show a driver's entire face which some cultures object to on religious grounds. A coalition including the Civil Liberties Union, Jewish Community Action, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Somali Community of Minnesota says the new rules don't treat everyone the same thereby violating the constitution's equal protection clause under the 14th amendment.
Coalition attorney Todd Noteboom said the state has failed to show any meaningful connection that the new rules stop terrorism. He said, however, they send a message.
"(That) temporary legal immigrants and Muslim women who have profound religious beliefs are more likely to be terrorists than any of the rest of us. And I'll tell you that having reviewed the record and having looked at this issue over the past several months, I can tell the court that history proves that that's false; common sense tells us it's not true; and the record before the court demonstrates the state of Minnesota hasn't done anything here to prove otherwise," Noteboom said.
In their court filings, the groups charge former Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Weaver with making an end-run around the legislature to have the changes established through the courts. Similar provisions proposed in reaction to the September 11th terrorist attacks failed to win legislative approval. Earlier this year, Weaver said he took the unusual step because of the contents of a secret FBI report. After being reminded of that report by Judge Jill Flaskamp-Halbrooks, attorney Todd Noteboom said he tried to obtain a copy and could not get one.
"Although I have not seen this FBI report, I will be shocked if what the report says is there's a serious and immediate threat of terrorism in the state of Minnesota by temporary legal residents or Muslim women who want to have their head and face covered for religious purposes," he said.
Representing the public safety commissioner, attorney Melissa Eberhart told the court the driver's license changes are not discriminatory because they don't affect aliens as a class; they apply to all Minnesota driver's license applicants.
The judges asked several questions about the full-face photo requirement. Eberhart responded that the requirement was not created to prevent anyone from obtaining a driver's license because of their religious beliefs.
"It was created out of the need to restore integrity to the driver's license to prevent identity fraud," Eberhart said. "It benefits everyone to have a photo on the driver's license; and that was the commissioner's intention."
Judge Gordon Shumaker asked whether full photo ID's were required on passports. Eberhart said it was her belief they were.
Judge David Minge questioned Eberhart on whether the photo requirement was neutral given that it's known that there's a small fraction of the population that for religious reasons object. Eberhart said driver's licenses aren't entitlements but privileges.
"These rules do not inhibit or advance religious practice. It doesn't compel anyone to violate their religious beliefs because there's no requirement to get a driver's license or identification card," she said.
Governor Pawlenty and Republican legislators have said they want to make Weaver's changes permanent. The court is expected to rule on the challenges in the next several months.