NOVEMBER 18, 2013
The U.S. government violated a Sikh woman’s religious rights when it prohibited her from entering a secure federal building with a sharp dagger or sword required to be carried by baptized adherents.
At least that’s what a federal appellate court says in a ruling involving an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent who worked in a downtown Houston facility that must enforce the dangerous weapons ban in federal buildings. The government employee, Kawaljeet Tagore, is a baptized Sikh who insists she must always carry her dagger/sword, known as a kirpan.
It’s one of five articles of faith required by Sikhism to be worn at all times by baptized adherents. The others are long hair, a steel or iron bracelet, special underwear and a small wooden comb. The kirpan has a three-inch blade, which exceeds the limit for pocket knives permitted in federal buildings by an inch. So, the Federal Protective Service denied Tagore’s request for an exemption and the IRS formed a special committee to find a way to accommodate her without violating federal security laws.
Among the proposed accommodations was shortening the kirpan’s blade to meet federal requirements, wearing a plastic kirpan or leaving it in the car while she worked in the secure building. The IRS even considered allowing Tagore to work from home or in a building with no security requirements, but that wasn’t possible so she was terminated and quickly filed a lawsuit.
In her complaint, filed in 2009, Tagore accuses IRS managers and other federal officials and agencies of violating her civil and religious rights. A federal judge, Sim Lake, in the southern district of Texas dismissed the claims and Tagore appealed to the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. A three-judge panel heard the case and issued a ruling this month in favor of the fired Sikh IRS accountant, accusing Judge Lake of “slicing too thin” in his ruling.
The appellate court affirmed dismissal of Tagore’s civil rights claims but found her religious freedom rights were violated by the government. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of the Sikh IRS employee by prohibiting her from working at the Houston federal building due to her faith, according to the decision. Tagore was represented by a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions.
“The Court made it crystal-clear that government does not get to second-guess citizens’ religious beliefs, and it also can’t just wave the “security” card around to justify bans on the core practices of any religion,” the group’s general counsel said in a statement. “Holding government to the proper legal standard is especially important for protecting Americans who practice minority faiths.”
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