A 37-year-old man from Gastonia pleaded guilty on Friday in New Mexico federal court to using force or threat of force to intentionally obstruct a Muslim woman in the free exercise of her religious beliefs.
Gill Parker Payne, who is awaiting sentencing, was on a Southwest Airlines flight on Dec. 11, when, according to court documents, he confronted a woman wearing a hijab.
Payne had been sitting several rows behind the woman, identified only as K.A., on the flight from Chicago to Albuquerque and did not know her.
During the flight, according to a release from the U.S. Justice Department, Payne stopped in the aisle next to her seat and pulled at the head scarf that Muslim women wear as part of their religious practice. “Take it off! This is America!” federal prosecutors contend Payne said.
The woman, whose head was fully exposed, “felt violated,” according to prosecutors and quickly pulled her hijab back up and covered her head.
“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, who this past week was beside U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch as the government sued North Carolina over House Bill 2. “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.”
U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez of the District of New Mexico added: “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.”
Payne has prior convictions in the Carolinas, including for driving while impaired, boating under the influence and driving on the wrong side of the road, court records show.
Charlotte Observer researcher Maria David and staff writer Joe Marusak contributed.