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Legal Briefing: Knives as Religious Symbols

Employers are advised that they may be required to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs, and that their efforts to do so should be carefully reviewed.

January 7, 2014

Kawaljeet Tagore, an IRS agent, started to wear a kirpan after being baptized into the Sikh religion. Sikhs are required to carry the swordlike object. Tagore’s request for a security waiver to continue to access the federal office where she worked was denied because the blade on her kirpan exceeded the law’s 2.5-inch limit, and did not fall within any exemptions.

When the IRS and Tagore could not agree on a religious accommodation that would allow her to access the building wearing the knife, Tagore appeared for work wearing the kirpan, was denied access and was terminated from her job. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed Tagore’s lawsuit against the U.S. and several federal agencies under Title VII and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held that the district court failed to conduct an individualized assessment required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and instead concluded the government had a compelling interest in enforcing the security law. The appellate court affirmed dismissal of the Title VII claim since the IRS doesn’t control federal building security. Tagore v. United States (5th Cir.) No. 12-20214 (Nov. 13, 2013).

Impact: Employers are advised that they may be required to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs, and that their efforts to do so should be carefully reviewed.

James E. Hall, Mark T. Kobata and Marty Denis are partners in the law firm Barlow, Kobata and Denis, which has offices in Los Angeles and Chicago. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. FollowWorkforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.