Does a Female Muslim Police Officer Have a Right To Wear a Khimar?

That's the question in Webb v. City of Philadelphia; this decision provides some background, and dismisses some collateral claims on procedural grounds, but does not dispose of the substantive question.

Title VII generally obligates employers to reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices, so long as doing so doesn't cause an undue hardship to the employer (something caselaw has defined as anything more than a minimal hardship). Webb's claim is chiefly that her religious practice of wearing the khimar (which, I'm told, is "a headscarf worn by observant Muslim women that hangs down to just above the waist") must therefore be accommodated.


Muslim Policewoman Barred from Wearing Khimar on the Job:

The khimar is "a headpiece ... which covers the hair, forehead, sides of the head, neck, shoulders, and chest," but not, at least in this instance, the face.

Philadelphia Police Department Directive 78 apparently prescribes a uniform uniform, with no exceptions for any religious apparel or any religious symbols. The case suggests that the uniform requirement is broad enough to exclude ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday, and therefore basically any non-uniform symbols.

Police officer Kimberlie Webb claimed that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required the city to accommodate her religious practice by exempting her from the strict uniformity requirement, and letting her wear the khimar. Title VII does require employers to provide exemptions for employees whose religions conflict with generally applicable work rules, but not when granting such an exemption would create an "undue hardship" for the employer. Courts have set the "undue hardship" bar pretty low, so that anything "more than a de minimus cost" would constitute an "undue hardship" that the employer need not bear.

The court held that requiring a religious exemption from Directive 78 would indeed create an "undue hardship":

The Directive's detailed standards with no accomodation for religious symbols and attire not only promote the need for uniformity, but also enhance cohesiveness, cooperation, and the esprit de corps of the police force. Prohibiting religious symbols and attire helps to prevent any divisiveness on the basis of religion both within the force itself and when it encounters the diverse population of Philadelphia.... Police Directive 78 is designed to maintain religious neutrality, but in this case in a para-military organization for the good not only of the police officers themselves but also of the public in general.

Thanks for How Appealing for the pointer.


The Odd Assumption of Islam as Monolith:

In the comments to the post about the Muslim policewoman who was barred from wearing a khimar on the job, one of the commenters expressed regret that the decision "means that observant Muslim women are, in effect, barred from serving as police officers." Another commenter responded,

Considering the restrictions most Muslim countries place on women I'm surprised that she thinks she can be a police officer in the first place, in a country that expects women cops to drive, handle guns, arrest men, etc., just like the male ones. (Saudi Arabia does have women on the police force, but AFAIK they really function as a sort of auxiliary so male cops don't have to manhandle, search, or even talk to non-related women.) OTOH, if she can be flexible about those restrictions, why can't she be flexible about the head-dress? The department isn't requiring that she go bareheaded, just that she wear the uniform hat. As I understand it, Mohammad only prescribed that women be "modest"; interpreting that as any particular garment is a cultural thing, not Islam.

I've heard similar arguments before, but they've always struck me as quite weak, a weakness that we can see if we adapt them to Judaism or Christianity. We know how varied Judaism is -- yet we don't express surprise when, say, a Reform Jewish man refuses to eat pork but doesn't wear a yarmulke. Nor would we, I think, have prisons deny Jewish prisoners pork-free meals just because the prisoners aren't full-on Orthodox, on the grounds that "they're flexible about some Orthodox Jewish religious laws, why can't they be flexible about pork?"

Likewise, some Christians observe a Saturday Sabbath; some observe a Sunday Sabbath; some observe no Sabbath (in the sense of a day of rest) at all. Many Christians are very serious about following some Old Testament rules, but think the others (such as the Sabbath observance and the kosher rules) have been superseded. Why isn't it equally plausible that some Muslims may interpret Islam to allow women a great deal more latitude than the Wahhabi do, yet still preserve some aspects of traditional Islamic women's garb?

Similarly, it's not uncommon for cultural rules and religious obligations to be closely intertwined. As I understand it, the requirement of wearing a yarmulke is a cultural tradition that is not understood even by the Orthodox as being mandated by the Torah. I'm not sure about this, but my sense is that the wearing of Christian-themed jewelry and the placement of ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday is "cultural" in the sense of not being seen as mandated by religion, but is surely linked to religious sentiments.

It may well be that the court's decision in this case is right; I'm not speaking about that here. My point is simply that some American Muslims' rights shouldn't be determined based on what Saudi Muslims do, or even other American Muslims do, just as some American Christians' rights aren't determined based on what other Christians do, and some American Jews' rights aren't determined based on what other Jews do.

Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all include multiple denominations, both formal and informal. And American religious freedom law recognizes that no religion ought to be treated as a monolith with a single Established Official View that somehow affects the rights of all members of that religion.


A Question About Judaism and Islam:

A commenter on the thread about The Odd Assumption of Islam as Monolith writes:

Yeah, that particular religion can't be compared to the other great religions, not straight up. I've listened to those who claim that you MUST read the holy book in arabic, for example, and other translations and usages are substandard.

I'm no expert on Judaism, but wouldn't many Orthodox Jews conclude that to fully understand the Torah you need to read it in Hebrew? I'm not sure they'd have the same theological explanation for this as Muslims would, but wouldn't they still insist (in a way that Christians generally do not) that translations of the Torah are in some measure "substandard"?


Muslims and Religious Exemption Law:

I have a piece on the subject in National Review Online this morning. Here's the introduction:

Recent years have seen a set of requests by Muslims for exemptions from generally applicable laws and work rules. A Muslim policewoman in Philadelphia, for instance, asked for an exemption from police-uniform rules so that she could wear a Muslim headdress. A few years ago, a Muslim woman in Florida asked that she be allowed to wear a veil in a driver's license photo. Last year, a Muslim woman in Michigan asked that she be allowed to testify veiled in a small-claims case that she brought.

All these claims were rejected by courts, and likely correctly, though the arguments for the rejection are not open-and-shut. But some of the public reaction I've seen to the claims suggests that people are seeing such claims as some sort of special demands by Muslims for special treatment beyond what is given Christians, Jews, and others. And that turns out not to be quite so: While the claims are for religious exemptions for Muslims, they are brought under general religious-exemption statutes that were designed for all religions and that have historically benefited mostly Christians (since there are so many Christians in America).

The Muslim exemption claims are plausible attempts to invoke established American religious-exemption law, and they deserve to be treated as such -- even if there are good reasons for rejecting them, as American religious-exemption law recognizes. Let us briefly review this law, so that this becomes clearer....


Accommodations for Female Muslim Athletes:

I've written before about Muslim requests for religious exemptions from generally applicable rules — chiefly to point out how similar these often are to non-Muslim requests for such exemptions, and to argue that we shouldn't get particularly exercised about them (though neither should we categorically accept them, any more than we should accept such requests from Christians, Jews, or others).

Reader Stephen St. Clair pointed me to the latest such request in the news (from the Washington Post):

Juashaunna Kelly, a Theodore Roosevelt High School senior who has the fastest mile and two-mile times of any girls' runner in the District this winter, was disqualified from Saturday's Montgomery Invitational indoor track and field meet after officials said her Muslim clothing violated national competition rules.

Kelly was wearing the same uniform she has worn for the past three seasons while running for Theodore Roosevelt's cross-country and track teams: a custom-made, one-piece blue and orange unitard that covers her head, arms, torso and legs. On top of the unitard, Kelly wore the same orange and blue T-shirt and shorts as her teammates.

The outfit allows her to compete while complying with her Muslim faith, which forbids displaying any skin other than her face and hands.

As one of the other heats was held, two meet officials signaled to Kelly and asked her about her uniform. Meet director Tom Rogers said Kelly's uniform violated rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which sanctioned the event, by not being "a single-solid color and unadorned, except for a single school name or insignia no more than 2 1/4 inches."

Rogers then told Kelly she was disqualified....

Now there is some controversy about whether the officials' objection was simply to the uniform's not being suitably single-colored, or to the uniform's covering the head. If the track and field organization only wants to impose color rules, to which to my knowledge Kelly and other Muslims wouldn't object, then there'd be no problem with that in general. I do think it was needlessly cruel to bar the girl from running in this event, based on what sounded like an honest mistake; it's not like her violation of the color rules would give her some unfair advantage over other runners. Still, insisting on compliance with such rules for the future wouldn't be at all objectionable.

But if an organization does insist on enforcing some rule (if there is one) against head coverings, that strikes me as wrong — likely not illegal or unconstitutional (unless it's motivated by hostility to Muslims, which I doubt), but needlessly harmful to young athletes. Just as male Orthodox Jews' desires to wear head coverings should be accommodated even in the face of otherwise uniform restrictions on athlete headgear (assuming there's no safety problem caused by the head coverings, for instance if they are sufficiently securely attached), and just as Sikh men's desires to wear turbans should be accommodated, so should Muslim women's desires to wear headgear and long pants.

Here's the basic problem: There are some restrictions that are of only modest importance to the government (or an educational organization or an employer or others), but are implemented because they impose only a slight burden on the average person. Yet for people in some religious groups, they impose a much greater individually felt burden, which is why they ask for an exemption.

Our society has a long, honorable, and generally highly beneficial (though not perfectly adhered to) tradition of accommodating a wide range of religious beliefs — of trying to make sure that people can have, whenever reasonably possible, all the rights and opportunities available to other members of American society without having to give up their religious views. This dates back over 200 years, with exemptions from oath requirements for Quakers and other groups, exemptions from military service for pacifist religious sects, and a wide range of other kinds of exemptions from otherwise generally applicable laws.

This doesn't mean we accommodate every request, no matter how burdensome to others. If an exemption would somehow hurt others, or substantially increase the burden on others, that will often be a good reason to deny the request. (Exemptions from military service, for instance, are understandably controversial on this score, and have always been limited in some measure.) It may even be proper to deny the exemption if the exemption would risk substantially hurting the exempted person; the organization involved might not want to be a party to such possible accidents. If there was reason to think that any garment required by the Muslim girl would either seriously risk heatstroke or tripping, or unacceptably cut off her peripheral vision so she would stumble or run into others, that might be reason to reject the request.

But I see no reason why there would be such an inherent danger here (at least if the garment is properly designed). And when an exemption is very cheap for the organization, and the main barrier is just an insistence on following the rule — a rule usually made without any real consideration of the stark burden it imposes on some religious observers — relaxing the rule strikes me as the right thing to do.

Again, this is not necessarily a legal obligation (employers are generally required to accommodate religiously objecting employees when doing so is very cheap, but other institutions usually aren't) and certainly not a constitutional one: the organization involved here may well be a nongovernmental one and thus not bound by the constitutional religious freedom provisions, and in any case it's likely that the constitutional provisions don't mandate exemptions in these sorts of cases even when the rule is government-made. But I do think that granting an exemption from a no-headgear policy would be the right thing to do, especially for an organization that is aimed at trying to encourage young athletes.

Finally, I realize that some might specifically object to Muslim head covering claims, on the pragmatic grounds that such coverings tend to reinforce the subjugation of women, and are therefore potentially harmful to society. I don't think that's generally a good enough reason to reject an exemption request; but here it strikes me as particular counterproductive.

Here is a Muslim girl who is engaging in an activity that is far from stereotypically feminine or subjugated. If she succeeds, and other devout Muslims girls follow her example and become more involved in sports and in competition, I think this help those girls, and incidentally help them undermine whatever norms of female subservience might exist in their communities. Conversely, if devout Muslim girl are excluded from such activities, I doubt they're likely to just set aside their head coverings and become good gender-egalitarian secularists (or Muslim reformers); rather, most of them are likely to retreat into more traditional pursuits. Religious accommodation thus strikes me as the practically wise thing to do, as well as the kind thing for the girls who seek the accommodation.


Muslim Soldier's Religiously Motivated Refusal to Deploy to Iraq:

The Army Court of Criminal Appeals just handed down an opinion on this a few days ago, rejecting the claim, asserted by Sgt. Abdullah Webster as a defense to charges of "missing movement by design and disobeying a superior commissioned officer." A few highlights:

1. "Appellate defense counsel now assert the military judge erred in accepting appellant's plea because he 'did not freely plead guilty' and appellant's 'guilty plea was irregular and not freely given because the Islamic scholars ... forbade [defendant] from deploying to Iraq [and] doing so would condemn [appellant] to hell." The court says no: "It is irrelevant that appellant missed movement or failed to obey the orders of his superior commissioned officers based on religious motives."

2. Defendant also argues that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides a defense, presumably because of his view that

Based upon the advice given to me by Islamic Scholars ... the conclusions were: 1. Consensus was that this [sic] no Muslims are permitted. 2. Muslims are not allowed to kill another Muslim except under three conditions . . . . Given the religious ruling, any combatant role I undertake would jeopardize my belief and place me in an unfavorable position on the Day of Judgment.

RFRA provides that, when the federal government substantially burdens a person's religious practice -- for instance, by requiring him to do something that his religion forbids -- the person is entitled to an exemption (even when the law is generally applicable, and doesn't single out religious people for special burden) unless the government shows that applying the law to the person is the least restrictive means to serve a compelling government interest.

The court says no: Even if the order burdened defendant's religious practice (which the court assumes for the sake of argument),

The Army has a compelling interest in requiring soldiers to deploy with their units. As the Supreme Court has said, "[i]t is 'obvious and unarguable' that no governmental interest is more compelling than the security of the Nation." The Army's primary mission is to maintain national security by fighting and winning our nation's wars. The Army cannot accomplish this primary mission if it cannot deploy, in a state of military readiness, the various units into which it is organized. Giving soldiers the option to decide selectively whether they wish to participate in particular military operations would undermine the readiness of all units to deploy, and thus compromise the Army's mission and national security.

In this case, the Army furthered its compelling interest in the least restrictive manner possible. Although the Army required appellant to deploy with his unit, the Army made numerous allowances for him. The Army afforded him the opportunity to request relief as a conscientious objector. The Army gave him the right to request reasonable accommodation of his religious practices. Finally, although apparently not required to do so by any regulation, appellant's commander generously allowed appellant to deploy with his unit in a non-combatant role....

As the Supreme Court has stated, "to accomplish its mission the military must foster instinctive obedience, unity, commitment, and esprit de corps." ... "The inescapable demands of military discipline and obedience to orders cannot be taught on battlefields; the habit of immediate compliance with military procedures and orders must be virtually reflex with no time for debate or reflection."

Sounds quite right to me. I should also add that the Supreme Court held in Gillete v. U.S. (1971) that people weren't entitled to a religious exemption from the duty to serve in the military, beyond what was provided by the limited conscientious objector exception (which applies only to those who object to all military service, rather than to those who refuse to fight in what they see as "unjust" wars). Gillette was decided during the era when the Court viewed the Free Exercise Clause as providing a presumptive right to religious exemptions; the Court later reversed that position, but the Religious Freedom Restoration Act basically reinstated the Gillette-era religious exemption doctrine as to the federal government, so Gillette would still be good precedent as to RFRA cases (though for some reason the Army Court of Criminal Appeals didn't cite it).


American Muslims' Demands for Religious Exemptions:

My post on the Muslim soldier's religious exemption demand reminded me of a point I made several months ago:

Recent years have seen a set of requests by Muslims for exemptions from generally applicable laws and work rules. A Muslim policewoman in Philadelphia, for instance, asked for an exemption from police-uniform rules so that she could wear a Muslim headdress. A few years ago, a Muslim woman in Florida asked that she be allowed to wear a veil in a driver's license photo. Last year, a Muslim woman in Michigan asked that she be allowed to testify veiled in a small-claims case that she brought.

All these claims were rejected by courts, and likely correctly, though the arguments for the rejection are not open-and-shut. But some of the public reaction I've seen to the claims suggests that people are seeing such claims as some sort of special demands by Muslims for special treatment beyond what is given Christians, Jews, and others. And that turns out not to be quite so: While the claims are for religious exemptions for Muslims, they are brought under general religious-exemption statutes that were designed for all religions and that have historically benefited mostly Christians (since there are so many Christians in America).

The Muslim exemption claims are plausible attempts to invoke established American religious-exemption law, and they deserve to be treated as such -- even if there are good reasons for rejecting them, as American religious-exemption law recognizes. Let us briefly review this law, so that this becomes clearer.... [Go here to keep reading.]

This is an excellent example. People of many religious groups have demanded exemptions from military service. In some measure, American law has chosen to expressly accommodate them, for instance through the conscientious objector exemption for people who oppose all wars (which especially benefits Quakers and other pacifist groups). Some members of other religious groups have also demanded exemptions, for instance when they believed that as Catholics they had a religious obligation not to fight in wars they believed to be unjust. Their claims were considered and rejected, using the then-standard constitutional approach for considering religious exemption demands (which has now been reinstated as a federal statutory approach).

The Muslims are just the latest group to do so. Their objections may be somewhat different from the Catholics', in that to some Muslims they may turn on the religious identity of the people on the other side. But other Muslims' objections appear to be very similar to some more familiar religious objections; for instance, in the case I discuss below, one of the quoted Muslim scholarly opinions suggested a just/unjust war distinction that in principle sounds much like the rule asserted by the Catholic objector in Gillette v. U.S.. And more broadly, Muslims are simply taking advantage of a longstanding American tradition -- the tradition of often (though not always) accommodating people's religious objections to generally applicable laws.

Sometimes the Muslim objector's demands should be rejected and sometimes they should be accepted. But they shouldn't be seen as some striking innovation brought here by some foreign interlopers. One commenter to an earlier post about accommodation of Muslim female athletes complained that, when Muslims "come here, we're expected to conform to their rules, not the other way around." Yet that misses the point: One of our rules, which we've followed for centuries, is precisely that sincere religious objections -- whether brought by familiar religions or recently imported ones -- should often (not always, but often) be accommodated.


"Tyson Plant Drops Labor Day for Muslim Holiday":

So reports Fox News:

A 5-year contract approved by members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union at the Shelbyville, Tenn., [Tyson Foods] plant last November includes the change [of paid holidays to exclude Labor Day and instead include the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday] to accommodate Muslim workers....

The seven additional paid holidays are the employee's birthday, New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Mickelson said....

Tyson officials said that approximately 250 of the plant's 1,200 employees are Somalis who entered the United States as political refugees. Most, if not all, are believed to be Muslim ....

Tyson officials said the contract was agreed to by 80 percent of the union's 1,000 members at the plant.

This year Eid al-Fitr falls on Oct. 1.

English First, in a seemingly non-English-related objection (or is it that they just don't like the Arabic name?), complains:

English First today denounced as multiculturalism run amok a decision by a Tennessee Tyson Foods poultry plant to eliminate Labor Day as a paid holiday for employees and replace it with a paid observance of a Muslim holy day....

A new immigrant to America, legal or illegal, enjoys more rights than taxpaying American citizens, Boulet said. The notion that immigrants should adapt to America is being destroyed one bilingual education class, one press one for English, and one ACLU-approved Muslim foot-washing bath at a time.

Bill Poser's post at Language Log brought this to my attention, and I agree with him that this is entirely fine. "You might think that this is the kind of thing that labor unions are supposed to do: negotiate holidays that are convenient for their members." The business wins, the Muslim members win, and it seems like the non-Muslim members are generally quite happy, too, judging by the vote.

But more importantly, America was expressly not founded on the notion that immigrants should adapt to America's religious beliefs. Indeed, some of the most important early colonies were settled by people who didn't want to adapt to English religious beliefs, and while some of them did promptly try to expel or exclude people who wouldn't accept the colonies' new religious orthodoxy, thankfully that largely disappeared by the Founding of the nation, and religious tolerance -- including accommodation of minority religious groups -- continued to increase since then. Jews were allowed to come to America without rejecting their own religious beliefs (for an early and surprising legal accommodation of Jewish religious beliefs, see here). Quakers' and other groups' opposition to swearing oaths is expressly accommodated by several provisions in the Constitution, which allow affirmations instead of oaths. More recently, businesses and schools with large Jewish workforces or student bodies have set up some Jewish holy days as days off. The same should apply to Muslims.

Not all religious beliefs, of course, have been accommodated, and not all should be accommodated. But requests from minority religious groups (including recent immigrant groups) for accommodation are a longstanding and respectable part of the American tradition of religious freedom. Where religious pluralism goes, multiculturalism is indeed a traditional American value. And the union vote at the Tyson plan is not "multiculturalism run amok" -- it's the American tradition of religious tolerance and religious accommodation working as it should be.

Finally, just to respond to the anticipated complaints about Islam being special because of the violence of some Muslim extremists, or even the endorsement of religious violence by substantial numbers of Muslims around the globe: None of this has anything to do with whether Somali immigrant Muslims working at a meatpacking plant should get a day off. When someone suggests religious accommodations aimed at letting people (of whatever religion) contribute to terrorist organizations, or engage in suicide bombings, I'll happily agree that they should be rejected -- just as religiously motived attacks on abortion clinics and other sorts of religious violence should remain fully punishable. But that some of the Somali-born meatpackers' coreligionists are doing bad things based on bad ideas doesn't make it the desire to have Eid al-Fitr off any less legitimate.


Religious Accommodations:

My post on religious accommodations, and in particular the statement, "But requests from minority religious groups (including recent immigrant groups) for accommodation are a longstanding and respectable part of the American tradition of religious freedom," drew this response from a commenter:

Correction: It's not part of American tradition but part of a U.S. Supreme Court adventurism under the faulty disguise it has the power to dictate social religious preferences within states.


1. None of the examples I gave are U.S.-Supreme-Court-mandated religious accommodations; all were done by the democratic process.

2. While from 1963 to 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court read the Constitution as mandating some sorts of religious accommodations, the 1990 Employment Division v. Smith decision almost entirely rejected that doctrine. The rule right now is that the Free Exercise Clause almost never mandates religious exemptions from generally applicable laws. (I have written in support of the Smith constitutional rule.)

3. Following the Smith decision, it was Congress that enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which provided that governments have to exempt religious objectors from generally applicable laws that burdened their religious practices (unless applying the law to the objector was necessary to serve a compelling government interest). Congress voted in favor of RFRA by a 97-3 vote in the Senate and by voice vote with no objection in the House.

4. It was then the Supreme Court, in 1997, that struck down RFRA as it applied to states. State legislatures in about a dozen states, and state voters in Alabama, have since enacted state-level RFRAs that do apply to state laws. (State supreme courts in about a dozen more states have also read their state constitutions as mandating some sorts of exemptions from generally applicable laws.)

So you can fault the Court for lots of things, but don't turn hostility to the Court -- or even to constitutional constraints on legislative action more broadly -- into a macro (ctrl-shift-A for "activism") that becomes a blanket response to everything. The American tradition of religious accommodation has generally been a tradition of accommodation precisely by the political branches of government.


Ban on Headgear, Including Religious Headgear, in Court:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

A Douglasville woman was jailed Tuesday after a judge found her in contempt of court for refusing to remove her hijab, the head covering worn by Muslim women.

Lisa Valentine, also known by her Islamic name, Miedah, 40, was arrested at the Douglasville Municipal Court for violating a court policy of no headgear ....

Judge Keith Rollins ordered her held in jail for 10 days, but she was released Tuesday evening. The reason for the early release wasn't immediately clear....

Other Muslim women said the same judge has ordered them to remove their hijabs....

Halimah Abdullah, 43, said she spent 24 hours in jail in November 2007 after Rollins held her in contempt of court for refusing to remove her head covering....

Valentine said she was accompanying her 19-year-old nephew to address a citation Tuesday morning when she was stopped at the metal detector and told she would not be allowed to enter the courtroom with a head scarf....

Frustrated, she turned to leave and uttered an expletive. She said the bailiff then told her she could take the matter up in front of the judge. She said she was handcuffed and taken into Rollins' courtroom....

It's not clear to what extent the expletive might have been punishable as fighting words (was it, for instance, "fuck you" said to the bailiff, or just a generic "fuck!" said in exasperation?), or to what extent the judge's authority to punish even non-fighting-words vulgarity in court would extend outside the courtroom (I'm inclined to say that it wouldn't be). But in any case, it seems the jail sentence at least in large part stemmed from the refusal to remove the headgear.

As with many religious accommodation questions involving Muslims, this is not a new issue. (I set aside the complicated question of William Penn's hat, and stick with more modern cases.) Judges have, for instance, applied no-hat rules to demand that parties or witnesses remove yarmulkes, see, e.g., Close-It Enterprises, Inc. v. Weinberger, 64 A.D.2d 686 (N.Y. App. Div. 1978), or their Catholic or Episcopalian priestly garb, People v. Drucker, 418 N.Y.S.2d 744 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. 1979); O'Reilly v. New York Times Co., 692 F.2d 863 (2d Cir. 1982); Ryslik v. Krass, 652 A.2d 767 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1995). The priest cases didn't involve headgear, but one can easily imagine similar issues arising as to nuns' habits. There have been other Muslim cases, as well. See, e.g., In re Palmer, 386 A.2d 1112 (R.I. 1978); State v. Allen, 832 P.2d 1248 (Ore. App. 1992).

Some of the cases involved no-hat rules that courts imposed just a matter of general decorum, and others involved prohibitions on wearing religious garb in front of juries justified by a fear that the religious garb would prejudice or otherwise unduly influence jurors. But in all these cases (except one that involved a priest wearing priestly garb as a lawyer, see La Rocca v. Lane, 37 N.Y.2d 575 (1975), a potentially different sort of question), the courts held that the prohibition shouldn't be applied when the garb is seen as religiously mandated.

And this, it seems to me, makes perfect sense, especially when the concern is simply about decorum and not juror prejudice. (Note that this case didn't involve a jury trial.) Whatever might be the symbolism of wearing a normal hat indoors, surely there's no disrespect that's usually intended, or likely to be reasonably perceived, when someone is wearing religiously mandated garb. A judge need not feel insulted by an Orthodox Jew's wearing a yarmulke, or a Muslim woman's wearing a hijab.

So there's no important government interest really being served here. But the burden on the religious objectors is very great: This means that if they are to comply with their felt religious obligations, they can't participate in one of the most important functions of American civic life. In two of the cases discussed in the column, the religious objectors were accompanying relatives to court, itself a pretty important function. But in other cases, the religious objector may be a party, a witness, or even a criminal defendant whose presence may be legally mandated for some purposes. Even if he's not legally forced to be in the courtroom, he may still have to forgo adequately litigating his case, or defending his liberty, as the price of complying with his religious obligations.

This is precisely the sort of situation where religious accommodation makes perfect sense — just as the constitutionally specified accommodation of witnesses and officeholders who refuse to swear, and instead must affirm, makes perfect sense. As I've written before before, requests from minority religious groups for accommodation are a longstanding and respectable part of the American tradition of religious freedom. Where religious pluralism goes, multiculturalism is indeed a traditional American value. To be sure, not all religious beliefs have been accommodated, and not all should be accommodated. But when accommodation is cheap — where the only matter at stake is the judge's sense of decorum, which shouldn't even be seen as undermined by the wearing of religious headgear, as opposed to a baseball cap — and the religious objector's interests in participating in a government function are important, the religious objectors should indeed be accommodated.

To be sure, under Employment Division v. Smith, which I generally approve of, such accommodation probably wouldn't be a constitutional obligation (at least unless some other constitutional right, such as a criminal defendant's right to participate in her trial, or to put on witnesses, is involved). If a judge evenhandedly cites for contempt Orthodox Jews, Catholic nuns, and Muslim hijab-wearing women who refuse to remove their headgear, his actions might not violate the Constitution. But state court systems should aspire to something more than just constitutionally minimal religious accommodation. Most judges throughout the country, I'm pretty sure, are happy to accommodate parties, witnesses, and friends and observers who want to wear religious headgear. It seems to me this judge should do the same.

UPDATE: Avi Schick reminds me of an opinion by Judge Easterbrook — a noted moderate conservative judge on the federal court of appeals for the Seventh Circuit — that I blogged about five years ago, and that Schick also wrote about (emphasis added):

Counsel for James contends that the district judge violated the first amendment by excluding from the courtroom any spectators whose religious beliefs require them to cover their heads. Because James himself did not seek to wear any form of head covering, he lacks standing to raise this contention. None of the spectators was held in contempt, and none has sued seeking a declaratory judgment. But although this appeal does not present an Article III case or controversy on this issue, the judicial branch has an interest in the prudent handling of public relations, and no formal controversy is needed to say a few words on the topic.

The Constitution does not oblige the government to accommodate religiously motivated conduct that is forbidden by neutral rules, see Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S.Ct. 1595, 108 L.Ed.2d 876 (1990), and therefore does not entitle anyone to wear religious headgear in places where rules of general application require all heads to be bare or to be covered in uniform ways (for example, by military caps or helmets). See Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503, 106 S.Ct. 1310, 89 L.Ed.2d 478 (1986). Yet the judicial branch is free to extend spectators more than their constitutional minimum entitlement.

Tolerance usually is the best course in a pluralistic nation. Accommodation of religiously inspired conduct is a token of respect for, and a beacon of welcome to, those whose beliefs differ from the majority's. The best way for the judiciary to receive the public's respect is to earn that respect by showing a wise appreciation of cultural and religious diversity. Obeisance differs from respect; to demand the former in the name of the latter is self-defeating.

It is difficult for us to see any reason why a Jew may not wear his yarmulke in court, a Sikh his turban, a Muslim woman her chador, or a Moor his fez. Most spectators will continue to doff their caps as a sign of respect for the judiciary; those who keep heads covered as a sign of respect for (or obedience to) a power higher than the state should not be cast out of court or threatened with penalties. Defendants are entitled to trials that others of their faith may freely attend, and spectators of all faiths are entitled to see justice being done.


Muslim Policewoman Has No Right To Wear a Religious Headscarf on the Job,

the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit just held in Webb v. City of Philadelphia (some paragraph breaks added):

[Kimberlie] Webb requested permission from her commanding officer to wear a headscarf while in uniform and on duty. The headscarf (a khimar or hijaab) is a traditional headcovering worn by Muslim women. Webb's headscarf would cover neither her face nor her ears, but would cover her head and the back of her neck. Her request was denied in view of Philadelphia Police Department Directive 78, the authoritative memorandum which prescribes the approved Philadelphia police uniforms and equipment. Nothing in Directive 78 authorizes the wearing of religious symbols or garb as part of the uniform....

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discharging or disciplining an employee based on his or her religion. "Religion" is defined as "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's ... religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business." To establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination [on this "religious accommodation" theory -EV], the employee must show: (1) she holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement; (2) she informed her employer of the conflict; and (3) she was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement.

Once all factors are established, the burden shifts to the employer to show either it made a good-faith effort to reasonably accommodate the religious belief, or such an accommodation would work an undue hardship upon the employer and its business.... An accommodation constitutes an "undue hardship" if it would impose more than a de minimis cost on the employer. Both economic and non-economic costs can pose an undue hardship upon employers; the latter category includes, for example, violations of the seniority provision of a collective bargaining agreement and the threat of possible criminal sanctions.

In the City's view, at stake is the police department's impartiality, or more precisely, the perception of its impartiality by citizens of all races and religions whom the police are charged to serve and protect. If not for the strict enforcement of Directive 78, the City contends, the essential values of impartiality, religious neutrality, uniformity, and the subordination of personal preference would be severely damaged to the detriment of the proper functioning of the police department. In the words of Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, uniformity "encourages the subordination of personal preferences in favor of the overall policing mission" and conveys "a sense of authority and competence to other officers inside the Department, as well as to the general public."

Commissioner Johnson identified and articulated the police department's religious neutrality (or the appearance of neutrality) as vital in both dealing with the public and working together cooperatively. "In sum, in my professional judgment and experience, it is critically important to promote the image of a disciplined, identifiable and impartial police force by maintaining the Philadelphia Police Department uniform as a symbol of neutral government authority, free from expressions of personal religion, bent or bias." Commissioner Johnson's testimony was not contradicted or challenged by Webb at any stage in the proceedings....

As a para-military entity, the Philadelphia Police Department requires "a disciplined rank and file for efficient conduct of its affairs." Commissioner Johnson's thorough and uncontradicted reasons for refusing accommodations are sufficient to meet the more than de minimis cost of an undue burden.

For more details, including how the court dealt with various relevant precedents, both from the Supreme Court and from other circuits that had confronted similar problems, have a look at the opinion, which is pretty readable and not too long.

Thanks to Joel Sogol for the pointer.