Friday, December 4, 2009

Sikhs and the Possibility of Religious Freedom

Sikh-Americans are small in number: there are only 211 Sikh congregations in the U.S.A. in the year 2000 according to the ARDA web site. Yet Sikhs stand out because of their many distinctive practices. The Pew Forum just published online a short but nice Q&A about the difficulties Sikh-Americans face in practicing their religion in the U.S.A. Much of this has to do with some of the particular requirements of Sikhism, e.g., men must wear head coverings, believers must carry a kirpan (a small curved sword), and more.

The Q&A examines the difficulty in balancing our ideal of religious freedom with other ideals in our society. For example: Should Sikh students be allowed to bring kirpans to school when the swords could become dangerous weapons? Should Sikhs be allowed to wear head coverings when it violates the uniform code required at a place of employment? Should imprisoned Sikhs be forced to shave their beards to comply with prison dress standards?

These questions are often resolved in the courtroom, where judges must perform a balancing act in trying to weigh a person's right to act in line with religious beliefs with another person or group's rights to set rules for behavior. In general, the courts rule in favor of the religious person unless there is a reason compelling enough to overrule that person's right to religious practice. For example, a 1984 ruling went in favor of an employer who required his Sikh employee to shave his beard because the beard hair hindered the operation of a gas mask that must be worn by employees for safety.

But we see here the difficulty in putting into practice our basic notion of religious freedom. Religious freedom often comes into conflict with other freedoms and responsibilities, and this means that religious freedom, even in the U.S.A., is not a right that trumps all other rights at all times and in all places in the eyes of the courts. This conclusion has even led at least one person to conclude that religious freedom is impossible.

It is true that religious freedom in the fullest sense of the term will never be realized because in a pluralistic society there will frequently arise conflicting claims and rights. Yet, saying that religious freedom is impossible can be misleading. Religious freedom is better thought of as existing in a matter of degrees rather than as an either-or condition. There is no doubt that people are more free to practice their religions in some countries than in others. Thus, the notion of religious freedom is still useful even if it can never be experienced in totality. Unfortunately, it also means that some people, like Sikhs in the U.S., will give up some religious practices even in relatively free religious environments.

Update: Coincidently, a Sikh man's is currently suing a transportation company claiming it did not hire him because of his beard and turban. Story here.


  1. The point made about people being more "free to practice their religions in some countries than in others" is analogous to the point that there is always someone better at something that you. Not to sound cynical, but in any firm or business there is always a competitor that is 'better' than you, in terms of providing to the customers what you can't. This is similar to religious freedom. Eventhough the United States is better than other countries in providing religious freedom to its nationals, it does not imply that all who are religious are not subject to laws and regulations. Now, this point does not infer the limit of US being the best in providing such a right, what it aims to say is that there is another firm (nation) out there that can provide to its market certain aspects of religious freedom that the United States can. To illustrate further, objectively speaking, Kobe Bryant is the best in the NBA currently. However, there are traits that can prove Dwayne Wade and or LeBron James are better. Even if a player is deemed the "best" there is always a characteristic trait in a competitor that is more valuable. Thus when a country is "religiously free" it doesn't imply it is in absolute terms, just that it offers a better right to freedom that other countries to their respective markets.

  2. I believe there should be a dividing line between religious freedom and religious tolerance in regards to Sikhs and any religious group for that matter. And I don't mean this with any bias or disrespect to any religion or any custom, but becoming a citizen of the United States, shouldn't it be the case that people should conform more to the United States norms rather than the other way around? Sure carrying short swords is well in good in a predominate sikh nation or region, but if originally under U.S. laws, carrying a weapon in for example a school is prohibited, irregardless of faith, then the laws shouldn't be adjusted to please Sikhs. I mean in a drastic example, if sacrifice was part of someone's religion, it wouldn't be tolerated in the United States. Which leads me to believe that though religious freedom is impossible, thats not necessarily a bad thing, but religious tolerance should always be prevalent.

  3. I do agree that here in the United States that religious freedom does come in degrees rather than a standard yes/no condition. In a melting pot society such as our it will always be impossible to completely satisfy all religious groups. Laws will always be necessary in defining rules and regulations for our public spaces. Execeptions can be made for certain practices, but accomodations for some of the more extreme ones(wearing swords in public) simply cannot be allowed for obvious reasons. Yes, Our society does not exercise complete religious freedom, but I would like to believe it is highly tolerable. A modern society needs restrictions and a line has to be drawn. Ofcourse religious tolerance should always exist but I think it should be understood that not all customs are suitable for this age and general restrictions are necessary to encompass a vary diverse population.

    -donna yen

  4. I found this to be quite an intriguing story. It seems that religious freedom can never be truly absolute. "Religious freedom" is a subjective term. While it is never total, it can be sufficient or insufficient based on one's personal standards. But this post does raise some potent questions about the extent to which religious freedoms should be allowed. For example, I think that the idea of a person, despite his religion, being allowed to carry a sword to school is completely unacceptable. I respect the fact that people have their own religious beliefs, but carrying a weapon hinders on the rights of others to have a safe school environment.

    On the other hand, some religious traditions are personal choices that do not have an adverse effect on others. One such Sikh idea is having a beard. This does not infringe on the rights of others in a direct way. However, I do think that the aforementioned employer had a right to make his employee shave because it put the employee at a physical health risk. This could leave the employer responsible.

    The line needs to be clear between allowing people to practice their religious beliefs in their own ways, and taking care of the physical needs of others. The restrictions outlined in the post involve the safety of individuals. By permitting religious practices to be above the law and put the lives of others at risk, many lives can be unnecessarily lost.

  5. This entry about religious freedom has to be the most interesting blog yet, for me personally. I love the mix between religion and society. The confliction between the personal beliefs and the acceptance of others is a thin line. Debating whether it is a concern for religous freedom or for the greater good is on going.

    It seems that allowing these Sikhs-Americans to carry around a sword seems Un-American. I mean that sincerely, because though religious traditions are taken seriously, it is a threat to the citizens in the country. That is where the line is crossed. For a company to not hire someone because of religious expression, or to require them to remove it, is definitely an unfair form of religious freedom. It is portrayed as a type of racism and discrimination. Freedom does not always come free, but this is just biased. Both sides have reasonable objectives, but there is no existing balance.

    There has to be a medium point to maintain between religious freedom and laws/regulations. Religious freedom isn't impossible, it just involves a lot of compromise. It may seem unfair on one end, but nothing in life is necessarily fair.

  6. To me, the actual strictness of this particular religion is questionable. I mainly say this because of the total relevance of the mandatory sword carrying part of their beliefs. Could they strongly believe in their faith without the carrying of a weapon? Sure, I understand that it is part of their ideology, but it mixes into the realm of other people's overall safeness in society. It could easily be used as a source of danger and is unacceptable in a school zone. If they have it with them during times of religious service, no arguement would be made.

    The Sigma screening that is attached to having a head covering is something that should not be problematic. If for any instance it hinders an individual's safety; I would then have to be against it at the workplace. But if it leads to ridicule and discrimination because of one's devotion to their beliefs at the workplace, then there is the problem.

    Overall, the idea of religious freedom in today's society can never be met by an idividual because there are so many different angles of religion that violate certains rules. The cloest thing to religios freedom is compromise and meeting halfway.

    Jessie Sanchez

  7. After thinking about the topic, I came to think that religious freedom can be closely related to the understanding and tolerance that others in the region have towards that religion. After the guest lecture presented on Thursday, I began to question what many religious groups such as the Sikh delt with in post 9/11 America. Would a male wearing a head covering for his religion be vulnerable to misunderstanding Americans who label him as a terrorist?
    These discriminating acts may alter the thought of religious freedom to younger Sikh generations. Many of the younger generation may choose to avoid practices of the Sikh tradition because they feel they will face hate crimes. To conclude, religious freedom may be as indirect as people checking your bag because you are wearing a head covering or hesitant to allow you to an event because of the way you are dressed.
    -Garrett Lynch

  8. Randy Jurdi 62136464

    I want to make this argument. The US constitution amendments number 1, freedom to practice and express religion and number 14 (same concept applied at state level) both give us right to choose and express our religion. If people can argue that religion is defined by our deepest beliefs, and they happened to be growing a beard and always carrying a sword, then to do these would be a mere exercise of our constitutional rights. i think that the state analyzed the cost versus the benefits of allowing religious practices like this and determined that the costs outweighed the benefits so greatly that the are compelled to deny them the right.

  9. Randy Jurdi 62136464

    i just realized that the author has a great point this must mean when you really think about it there is no way that the U.S. can ever really have religious freedom. this is because the seperation of church and state and the control the state has over the church. granted right to religion is protected by the constitution but when the exercise of religion becomes counterproductive to the state the government will regulate them.

  10. Alex and Darlene, I think we agree for the most part. (Right?) Though I probably wouldn't say that carrying a sword is un-American (it used to be pretty common to carry weapons--think of the old west). Probably better to say that carrying weapons is not customary anymore.

    Cameron and Donna, You raise a difficult issue about integration. Surely we have customs here in the U.S., but determining when people's constitutional rights outweigh the customs is the difficult thing.

    Eric, I agree that the safety issue is compelling, yet of course there will always be gray areas. For example, how much danger is allowed before it is too much.

    Jessie, I think one issue here is that religion is about more than belief for many people. It is also about behavior and commitment. This gives carrying the sword an added dimension of meaning.

    Garrett, Yes, I think that Sikhs have suffered as a result of 9/11. They are often confused with Muslims.

    Randy, I think the cost-benefit analysis you are talking about is done, though maybe not using the same words or using a spreadsheet. The idea is it that the state must have a compelling enough reason that offsets the restriction on someone's rights. This is a cost-benefit calculation implicitly even if not explicitly. And, yes, the interests of the state/society will generally take precedence in these settings.


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