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5th Circuit Allows Sikh RFRA Lawsuit to Proceed E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Thursday, 14 November 2013

In an interesting ruling yesterday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by an IRS employee who adheres to the Sikh faith. Kawaljeet Tagore lost her job after being told she could not enter the Federal Protective Services building that houses her office while wearing a kirpan, a ceremonial blade worn by Sikhs as a requirement of their faith. Security officials refused to allow her to wear the blade in the building, citing security concerns, and Tagore refused to wear a blade shorter than 3 inches as a means of accommodating her faith.

She filed suit against the IRS under Title VII for employment discrimination, and under RFRA for substantial burden of religious freedom rights without a compelling government interest. The trial court dismissed her suit. On the Title VII claim, the judge agreed with the IRS that accommodating her request would be an undue hardship on the employer by placing them at odds with the security laws governing the building. On the RFRA claim, the judge ruled as a matter of law that Tagore had failed to demonstrate the need to wear specifically a 3-inch blade was a "sincerely held belief" as required by the law, and that the government would pass the compelling interest test even if she had demonstrated it.

On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the trial court on the dismissal of the Title VII claim, but disagreed on dismissing the RFRA claim.

For starters, the court said, rejecting the plaintiff's claim that her religious beliefs are sincerely held beliefs was an error. The sincerity of the belief is rarely challenged at this stage, and the record in the case contained more than enough evidence to support a finding that her claimed beliefs are sincere.

As for the compelling interest test, the appeals court said, the government has not shown that the ban on this particular kirpan is necessary to achieve its security goals. That is especially true since a new security policy includes means of accommodating the kirpan.

Because the new policy contradicts the arguments previously advanced by the government for denying Tagore an exception or exemption for the wearing of her kirpan to the Leland building, the district court’s application of strict scrutiny must be reversed and remanded for further analysis. In so doing, we emphasize that we express no opinion on the ultimate application of strict scrutiny because the government should be allowed to offer more evidence concerning its asserted need for uniform application of Section 930(a) and the impact of the new Policy Statement on this case.

The case goes back to the trial court now with the RFRA claim intact, and the government tasked with explaining why an accommodation would have undermined a compelling government interest at the time, but the possibility of such an exception is now part of the new security policy.

Stay tuned.

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