An Oklahoma bank's requirement that branch visitors remove anything covering their faces discriminates against Muslims, a civil liberties group says.

The Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called Wednesday on Valley National Bank in Tulsa to change a policy that requires visitors to the $221 million-asset bank's four branches to remove their hats, hoods and sunglasses so bank employees can see their faces.

The policy – which Valley National says is a security measure – prevented a Muslim woman from entering a Valley National branch in Tulsa on Oct. 9, the council says. An employee allegedly told the visitor she would have to be escorted to and from the teller unless she agreed to remove her hijab, a loose-fitting garment that some Muslim women wear over their heads.

“Recognize that a religious headdress is different than a hat," Adam Soltani, the council's executive director, told American Banker. "In Oklahoma, there has never been an instance of anyone impersonating a Muslim woman to rob a bank or anywhere else."

Valley National says it instituted the policy six years ago at the suggestion of the Oklahoma Bankers Association. "If a customer or prospective customer enters Valley National Bank wearing a hat, a hood, or sunglasses, it is the bank's policy to have an employee accompany the customer while in the bank to ensure safety for its employees and others customers," Brad Scrivner, Valley National's chief executive, said in an email.

In a letter last week to the council, Scrivner offered to apologize to the woman and said he would make sure Valley National personnel explain the policy clearly before asking visitors to comply. "We would like to better explain to her our seemingly offensive and bizarre request and explain to her that she is absolutely welcome in our bank at any time as are all Muslim-Americans," Scrivner wrote.

Similar measures at other financial institutions also have led to dustups. In 2009, the Navy Federal Credit Union apologized to a Somali woman after one of its employees at a branch in Mission Valley, Calif., asked her to remove her hijab, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

"It makes people feel so unwelcome in a country of religious and cultural pluralism," added Soltani, who has offered to provide Valley National with diversity training to help avoid such incidents in the future.

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