Gill Parker Payne, 37, of Gastonia, North Carolina, pleaded guilty today in the District of New Mexico to one count of using force or threat of force to intentionally obstruct a Muslim woman, identified as K.A., in the free exercise of her religious beliefs.
According to court documents, on Dec. 11, 2015, Payne and K.A. were on board a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Albuquerque, New Mexico. K.A. was wearing a religious headscarf, known as a hijab. Payne was seated several rows behind K.A. on the airplane, and did not know her. Payne admitted that he saw that K.A. was wearing a hijab and was aware that it is a religious practice of Muslim women to wear a headscarf.
Payne further admitted that shortly before landing, but while still in-flight, he walked up the aisle to where K.A. was sitting and stopped next to her seat. Payne proceeded to tell K.A. to take off her hijab, stating something to the effect of, “Take it off! This is America!” Payne then grabbed the back of the hijab and pulled it all the way off, leaving K.A.’s entire head exposed. As a result, K.A. felt violated and quickly pulled the hijab back up and covered her head again.
“No matter one’s faith, all Americans are entitled to peacefully exercise their religious beliefs free from discrimination and violence,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Using or threatening force against individuals because of their religion is an affront to the fundamental values of this nation, and the Civil Rights Division will continue to be vigilant in protecting the religious liberties guaranteed to all Americans.”
“This prosecution sends a clear message to anyone who contemplates the use of threats or intimidation to interfere with the right of individuals, including members of our Muslim community, to express their faith without fear,” said U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez of the District of New Mexico. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to protecting the religious rights of Muslims in New Mexico by aggressively prosecuting those who wish to perpetrate hate crimes against them.”
“All Americans, regardless of their differences, deserve to be treated with respect,” said Special Agent in Charge Terry Wade of the FBI’s Albuquerque Division. “As the lead agency for enforcing federal civil rights laws, the FBI will continue to hold accountable those individuals whose intolerant acts harm others. I would like to thank the FBI staff in Albuquerque and Charlotte, North Carolina, for their work on this case, as well as the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Albuquerque Aviation Police.”
A sentencing hearing has not yet been set.
This case is being investigated by the FBI’s Albuquerque Division. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Vierbuchen of the District of New Mexico and Fara Gold of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section.