A federal appeals court has reinstated a claim of religious discrimination filed by a former Internal Revenue Service worker who was fired for going AWOL after security agents wouldn’t admit her to the federal building in Houston, TX, because she was wearing a Sikh religious ceremonial sword.
In Tagore v. United States, (5th Cir., Nov. 13, 2013), the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals remanded for reconsideration Kawaljeet Tagore’s claim that her rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) were abridged when she was prevented from reporting to work for the IRS by security guards who denied her admission to the federal building.
The Federal Protective Service said Tagore could not wear the sword, which is called a kirpan, into the federal building because it had a three-inch blade that fell within the statutory definition of a “dangerous weapon … readily capable of causing death or serious bodily injury … .”. A federal statute (18 USC Sec. 930) prohibits weapons with blades more than 2.5 inches in length from being taken into federal building.
A kirpan resembles a knife or sword but has an edge that is curved or blunted. It is meant to remind its bearer of a Sikh’s solemn duty to protect the weak and promote justice for all.
The RFRA provides that a “religiously neutral” law that burden a persons’ exercise of religion must be necessary for the “furtherance of a compelling government interest.”
The appeals court said the Federal Protective Service issued a Policy Directive after Tagore’s case was dismissed by the lower court that permits the granting of exemptions in federal buildings for Sikh articles of faith. The appeals court said the policy contradicts the government’s claimed need for uniform application of the weapons ban.
The appeals court said its ruling did not reflect upon the merits of the government’s security concerns, adding:
“Precisely because kirpans may be dangerous weapons in the wrong hands or may fall into the hands of evildoers who are not Sikhs, there would seem to be support for certain limitations, e.g.on blade length, security clearance status of the bearer of the kirpan, the frequency of the bearer’s visits to a particular federal facility, the degree or method of concealment, or degree of attachment tothe person’s body.”
The Court dismissed another claim in the case involving Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court said the IRS was not required to accommodate Tagore’s request for a waiver that would enable her to wear the kirpan because the request placed the IRS at odds with the Federal Protective Service and federal law. “An employer need not accommodate an employee’s religious practice by violating other laws,” said the appeals court.
Tagore refused requests by the IRS to wear a kirpan with a blade shorter than 2.5 inches, to wear a dulled blade sewn in its sheath, to wear a plastic or lucite kirpan or to leave her kirpan in her car while she was in the federal building. She said all of these options would violate her conscience or religious mandates.
Tagore’s attorneys argued that kirpans are less dangerous than scissors, box cutters, or other objects that are regularly brought into federal buildings.
Sikhism, which originated in the 15th Century in the Punjab region of South Asia is one of the world’s largest religions, with over 25 million adherents. The current Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is a practicing Sikh. Devout Sikhs are mandated to keep five articles of faith at all times: unshorn hair, a wooden comb, an iron bracelet, cotton undergarments and the kirpan.