Saturday, April 11, 2009

What Not to Wear

In an article from The Legal Intelligencer entitled “3rd Circuit Rejects Muslim Cops Bid to Wear Religious Scarf,” author Shannon P Duffy reports on the final ruling in Webb v. City of Philadelphia, a case brought by officer Kimberlie Webb against the Philadelphia police department for their refusal to allow her to wear a khimar, a religious head scarf, while on duty. The case was unanimously decided by a three judge panel on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, supporting an earlier, lower court ruling in 2007. Webb had joined the police force in 1995 but did not request to wear a head covering until 2003, at which point her commanding officer denied her petition, citing the police department's policy against wearing any religious symbols or clothing when in uniform. Webb later showed up at work wearing her khimar and was sent home and suspended for neglect of duty and insubordination for going against the orders of her commanding officer on the matter. The court ruled in support of the department, arguing that the blanket policy restricting officers from wearing religious symbols or clothing did not infringe on Webb’s civil rights, specifically her freedom to exercise religion freely. Here, the Court cited that allowing Webb to wear a khimar would compromise a dress code which requires strict adherence in order to maintain “the essential values of impartiality, religious neutrality, uniformity, and the subordination of personal preference” within the department. Doing this, the court argued, would pose an “undue hardship” on the Philadelphia police department.

While I think it is important for public departments to maintain religious neutrality as they are publicly funded and are obligated to impartially serve their community, I’m not sure how swayed I am by the argument that granting Webb’s request would have burdened the department with “undue hardship.” On the one hand, because the police department in Philadelphia absolutely adheres to their religiously neutral dress code, I can understand why the department and the Court would want to avoid starting down the slippery slope of dress code exceptions. On the other hand, because Webb’s request to wear a khimar was motivated by, what she argued, was her religion’s mandate that her hair be covered; and her proposal was to wear the lower portion of her head scarf, which itself would be fastened by Velcro so as to not pose a safety hazard, tucked into her shirt in addition to always wearing her police hat on top of the scarf, granting Webb’s request just comes across to me as a benign exception to the dress code. In conclusion, while I generally agree with the state’s position of religious neutrality with regard to Webb’s case because it is a sweeping policy that restricts all public officers equally, I feel that I could be swayed to interpret the Court’s ruling as restricting Webb’s religious exercise rights given other state’s more relaxed position on the similar dress policies.

1 comment:

Vignesh N. said...
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