The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has revived a religious-freedom lawsuit brought by Sikh IRS agent Kawaljeet K. Tagore, who claimed she was fired after refusing to remove a ceremonial sword before entering the federal building where she worked.
“We’re five or six years down the road in this litigation, and I think we’ve at least established that the government can’t arbitrarily deny Sikhs the ability to wear the kirpan in federal buildings,” said Scott Newar, a Houston solo who represents Tagore.
Lowell V. Sturgill, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney who represents the government defendants in the case, did not immediately return a call for comment.
The background to the Fifth Circuit’s Nov. 13 decision in Kawaljeet K. Tagore v. United States is as follows, according to the opinion.
Kawaljeet Tagore was refused permission to wear a kirpan (a Sikh ceremonial sword) with a blade long enough to be considered a “dangerous weapon” under federal law inside the building where she worked for the Internal Revenue Service, according to the opinion.
Tagore later sued the United States and various federal agencies in Southern District of Texas trial court, alleging violations of her religious rights protected by Title VII and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the government defendants on both claims, according to the opinion.
While affirming the trial court’s Title VII rulings, the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded her RFRA claim for further consideration as to whether Tagore “holds a sincere religious belief in wearing a kirpan with a blade exceeding the federally prescribed maximum” and whether the government has a compelling interest in enforcing a statutory ban of “weapons with blades exceeding 2.5 inches” against her specifically.
“After reviewing hundreds of pages of deposition testimony and exhibits, the district court concluded that Tagore did not create a triable issue of fact that her sincere religious beliefs require her to wear a kirpan with a 3-inch, rather than the statutorily permitted 2.5-inch, blade. With due respect to the able court, this is slicing too thin,” wrote Judge Edith Jones in an opinion joined by Judges James Dennis and Stephen Higginson.
The Fifth Circuit’s ruling instructed the trial court to apply a “strict scrutiny” test as to whether the government had a compelling interest in banning the religious swords.
“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 to the person’s body …,” Jones wrote. “Despite the importance of deferring to officials charged with maintaining domestic security, conclusional affidavits will be insufficient to overcome the policies and procedures embodied in RFRA.”
Newar is pleased with the ruling, which focuses more attention on the government’s interest in banning kirpans from federal buildings.
“This is a huge huge issue for Sikhs, and it’s worldwide,” says Newar, who notes that Sikhs are facing similar conflicts over their wearing of kirpans in Canada and Europe.
“The whole issue of the kirpan and their ability to wear them in the world has been roiling for 20 years,” Newar says. “The legal arm of the Sikh community [has] has been trying to gain recognition that the kirpan is an article of faith. Orthodox Sikhs do not take off the kirpan while bathing or sleeping.”