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Monday, February 26, 2024 | Back issues
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Sikh Fired by IRS Over Blade Sees Suit Revived

HOUSTON (CN) - The Internal Revenue Service may have violated the rights of a Sikh woman whose religion requires her to wear a small dagger known as a kirpan, the 5th Circuit ruled.

Sikhism requires all baptized adherents to, at all times, wear five articles of faith: long hair, a small wooden comb, a steel or iron bracelet, specially designed underwear and a short dagger.

As a revenue agent for the IRS, Kawaljeet Tagore worked at the George "Mickey" Leland Federal Building in downtown Houston and was thus subject to the "dangerous weapons" ban in federal buildings.

Despite a letter from the Sikh Coalition explaining that kirpans are less dangerous than scissors or box cutters, the Federal Protective Service denied Tagore an exemption after finding that her 3-inch blade was half an inch over the limit for acceptable pocket knives.

The IRS then formed a committee to figure out if they could accommodate Tagore in a way that would not violate federal law.

Tagore's IRS boss asked her if she would consider wearing a kirpan with a blade shorter than 2 1/2 inches. Other proposals included Tagore leaving her kirpan in her car or at home while she was in the federal building, wearing a dull blade, wearing a dull blade sewn in a sheath or wearing a "symbolic" plastic kirpan.

Responding on Tagore's behalf, the director of the Sikh Coalition explained that her kirpan already had a dull blade, and the other accommodations would violate her religion.

The IRS committee mulled whether Tagore could work from home or in another federal building without security, but both ideas were rejected, leading to her termination.

Tagore sued the United States, several federal agencies, IRS managers and federal officials in January 2009, alleging civil rights and Religious Freedom Restoration Act violations.

After U.S. District Judge Sim Lake dismissed Tagore's claims with prejudice, she appealed to the 5th Circuit.

A three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based federal appeals court concluded Wednesday that Tagore's evidence raises a genuine material fact issue as to whether her religious beliefs require her to wear a kirpan with a 3-inch blade.

"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," Judge Edith Jones wrote for the panel. "With due respect to the able court, this is slicing too thin."

The panel revived Tagore's Religious Freedom Restoration Act claims, but affirmed dismissal of her civil rights claims, finding it would be impractical to make federal security officers figure out if a blade is dull or sharp to determine if it is a dangerous weapon.

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, applauded the 5th Circuit's ruling in a statement issued by Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.

"This is a big win for religious freedom, and not just for Sikhs," Rassbach said. "The court made it crystal-clear that government does not get to second-guess citizens' religious beliefs, and it also can't just wave the 'security' card around to justify bans on the core practices of any religion."

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