Kawal Tagore, a Sikh accountant, won a settlement on November 6 that will help counter discrimination that Sikhs have to face often at federal institutions. Tagore was an employee at the Internal Revenue Service when she turned to Sikhism in 2005. The religion required her to wear a kirpan at all times, even to work. A kirpan is a small religious knife that is kept inside a sheath. Initially, Tagore’s supervisor asked her to leave when she tried to enter Leland Federal Building in Houston but later she was fired. Even though Tagore had already sought permission for wearing her kirpan to work and presented it for inspection at the entrance, security pinned down her arms, took away the kirpan and interrogated her about her citizenship, despite her being an American national.
Even though Sikhism does not specify a particular length for the kirpan, which is one of the five articles of faith expected to be worn by Sikhs at all times, Tagore’s was three inches long and duller than a butter knife. However, Tagore was effectively barred from all federal buildings, as per the policy of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Federal Protective Service (FPS). Her lawyers argued the policy that disallowed her from entering any federal building was discriminatory in nature, as it allowed other sharper objects like pocketknives and scissors to be used in office spaces.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in November 2013 that the lower court would be required to assess whether the government had a compelling reason that explained the substantial burden its policy placed on Tagore’s personal beliefs. However, the recent settlement with DHS came about while that trial was still underway. Tagore’s record has been cleared so she can once again apply for a job with the federal government. This time, she has the permission to carry her kirpan to work as well.
In 2012, Tagore’s case caused FPS to set up an accommodation policy for Sikh employees so they could bring their kirpans to work. Part of Tagore’s settlement requires FPS to continue educating staff about that policy.
“It’s a huge accomplishment and one that’s going to set a precedent for Sikhs nationwide,” says Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, which also argued on behalf of religious accommodations in the Hobby Lobby case.
According to Bloomberg, before Tagore’s case garnered national attention, the government often made Sikhs choose between their religion and their will to serve the country honorably.
“She’s really broken through that and set aside that discriminatory ban on Sikh religious access to federal buildings,” he said.
DHS was not available for comment and the settlement has not included any admission of wrongdoing either.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that took off in the Indian state of Punjab as long ago as 1469. Guru Nanak, who rejected the caste system and believed all humans are equal, was its founder, according to the Sikh Coalition. The word kirpan is an amalgamation of two words – kirpa, meaning kindness and aan, meaning self-respect. The kirpan is supposed to be symbolic of a Sikh’s duty to promote justice and protect the weak.
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