Religious Neutrality

12 04 2009

The Legal Intelligencer has an article which reports about a Muslim police officer in Philadelphia who has lost her case to wear her headscarf while on duty. The legal opinion (pdf) of the court “ruled that forcing the department to accommodate her would compromise the city’s interest in maintaining “religious neutrality” in its police force.

The court stated that “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.”

A feature here is that Kimberlie Webb did not want to cover he face, or wear a full-body abaya over her uniform, instead “she intended to wear the lower portion of the khimar tucked inside her police shirt and to wear her police hat. Although some Muslim women also cover their faces, leaving only a slit for their eyes, Webb said she was not seeking to do so.” As opposed to this case where a Muslim woman wanted to get her mugshot taken with her face hidden. (That is a story within itself. The lady killed a 2 year old by repeating beatings. When she was arrested, wanted her mugshot with her face hidden and when it was removed forcibly, it became a case of The West v/s Islam & now her husband is making havoc over breach of rights. Who cares about a dead baby!)

But “Webb was told that wearing a khimar would violate Philadelphia Police Department Directive 78, because nothing in the directive authorizes the wearing of religious symbols or clothing as part of the uniform.”

What bugs my bugger is the quintessential meaning of “religious symbols”. France’s banning of the headscarf in schools makes the headscarf a religious symbol. Also students remove necklaces, yarmulke/kippahs and other symbols. Now what about, forex, Sikhs. Sikh men wear a steel bracelet (kara) (they also carry a knife, though only devouts do now). Now if we see a guy wearing a steel bracelet in school or at work, is that a personal article of decoration (jewellery) or is that a religious symbol. What if I invent a religion that has a basic tenet that “Thou shalt not be allowed to show your body from your neck till your knees and your elbows. This has to be covered by a cotton cloth covering”. My devout followers shall wear cotton shirts/sweaters/t-shirts etc. Now, shall these governments force them to go shirtless? Remove the religious symbol? They should. And then again, who defines what a religion is and what is its symbol? Is a religion defined by the existence of a Central Religious Society? # of followers? Is Jainism a religion for them (because it is small in # of followers) or Bahai’ism? Or Mormonism?






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