The name Tahita Jenkins will ring bells only in the heads of a rarified group of lawyers and others aware of the black Pentecostal New York City bus driver having been fired from her job in 2007 — because she insisted that her religious beliefs required her to wear a modest skirt in public.
Agudath Israel of America engaged a law firm to contest the MTA’s termination of Ms. Jenkins, and eventually she prevailed.
In most cases, American employers covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to follow their religious dress and grooming requirements, including things like a necklace or pin with a religious symbol, a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, a Jewish woman’s tichel or sheitel, or a Jewish man’s peyos.
Certain entities, however, like law enforcement agencies, can insist on more rigid dress codes, even against an employee’s religious scruples. In the case of police departments, issues of safety have been raised to limit things like beards or overly loose-fitting garments; and the importance of dress and grooming uniformity has been asserted as key to maintaining the public’s trust, and invoked as well for limiting exceptions to established codes. Courts have widely accepted such concerns as legitimate and rational.
Last week, north of our border, a highly regimented and uniformed police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, gave official permission to female officers to wear hijabs along with the Mounties’ famous British-style red uniforms, leather riding boots and broad-brimmed hats. It was only a matter of time. Sikh Mounties have been permitted to wear turbans since 1990.
Police in Britain, Sweden, Scotland and Norway, as well as in some U.S. localities, have also permitted Muslim women officers to wear head-coverings on the job.
The Mounties, as it happens, are the third Canadian police agency to allow hijabs to be worn on duty. Toronto police first allowed it in 2011 and Edmonton police gave it the green light in 2013.
New York’s police department, for its part, “makes reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs,” according to NYPD spokesman Paul Browne. It has permitted Sikh members of the service to wear turbans that fit under department headgear.
Nevertheless, Masood Syed, a Muslim member of the force, was suspended by the NYPD for 30 days last year because of his beard. Subsequently, though, a judge ordered the NYPD to reinstate him and compensate him for the time of his suspension.
The military is another institution where uniformity is a treasured ideal. There, too, though, rules have been relaxed over the years for at least some religious garb.
In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Jewish active military members were required to remove their yarmulkes indoors.
Shortly thereafter, however, Congress proposed the Religious Apparel Amendment, permitting yarmulkes and other unobtrusive religious garb, and the amendment became part of U.S. Department of Defense regulations the following year.
That legislation, interestingly, was bolstered by the story — recounted twice publicly by then-President Ronald Reagan — of how a Jewish navy chaplain, present during the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, used his yarmulke to wipe blood off the face of a wounded Marine, and how a Catholic chaplain then tore off a piece of his own uniform to replace the Jewish chaplain’s head-covering. Members of Congress saw the account as an emblem of America’s respect for religion.
With the specter of violence worldwide being committed in the name of Islam, it might discomfit some to see Islamic garb being worn by an officer of the law. But what must be remembered is that the same concern for religious practice and garb that has come to characterize our country — in such striking contrast with France, whose policy of laïcité, or enforced secularism, forbids religious garb in public schools, hospitals and some other public spaces — benefits not only Jews but other religious groups no less. What is more, the Jewish quest for freedom of all religious expression in the U.S. holds the potential to help undermine the disdain for “the other” that fuels so much hatred and violence. It can even create strategic alliances.
Like the 2002 effort of Cook County, Illinois law officers Sergeant Larry Davidson, an Orthodox Jew, and Deputy Crystal Clark, a Muslim, to be permitted to wear their respective religious head coverings while on duty.
At first, the Cook County’s Sheriff’s Office barred the two officers. But, after public pressure, it reconsidered and reversed its decision.
The Mounties acted responsibly.