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March 4, 2016 0

A Win For Religious Minorities In the Military

Cap­tain Sim­rat­pal is an hon­ors West Point grad­u­ate, Army Ranger, com­bat vet­eran, Bronze Star recip­i­ent and obser­vant Sikh, who wants to abide by the arti­cles his faith – wear­ing a tur­ban, unshorn hair and a beard – while serv­ing his coun­try.  Instead of grant­ing his recent request for a per­ma­nent reli­gious accom­mo­da­tion, the Army sin­gled him out for spe­cial­ized gas mask and hel­met testing.

Yes­ter­day, a fed­eral dis­trict court in a well-reasoned deci­sion not only rejected these tests, but rec­og­nized the impor­tance of fos­ter­ing reli­gious diver­sity in our military.

sikh warrior When the Cap­tain entered West Point a decade ago, Army rules did not per­mit him to fol­low the arti­cles of his faith.  So he made the dif­fi­cult choice of choos­ing ser­vice to his coun­try over his faith.

In recent years, how­ever, the Army has revised it reli­gious accom­mo­da­tion rules and Sikh sol­ders have been per­mit­ted to abide by their religiously-mandated groom­ing stan­dards. After Cap­tain Sim­rat­pal met some of these sol­ders at a Pentagon-sponsored Sikh cel­e­bra­tion last year, he decided that his mil­i­tary ser­vice should not pre­vent him from fol­low­ing his faith.

Last Decem­ber, he was granted a tem­po­rary accom­mo­da­tion to wear a tur­ban, unshorn hair and a beard pend­ing a deci­sion on his request for a per­ma­nent accom­mo­da­tion.  The Cap­tain was under the belief that the Army would grant the per­ma­nent accom­mo­da­tion, but instead he received orders on Feb­ru­ary 24th to report for rig­or­ous, spe­cial­ized test­ing for the fit­ting of his gas mask and hel­met.  Sol­diers seek­ing to wear a beard for med­ical rea­sons, “Hard to fit” sol­diers with hel­met and mask fit­ting issues, and even other Sikh sol­diers are not required to undergo such testing.

This week, the Cap­tain filed a fed­eral law­suit with the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the Dis­trict of Colum­bia claim­ing that the spe­cial­ized test vio­lated his rights under the Reli­gious Free­dom Restora­tion Act (RFRA) and ask­ing to the Court to tem­porar­ily stop them while he awaits a final answer on his request for a per­ma­nent reli­gious accommodation.

The court ruled in his favor stat­ing: Sin­gling out the plain­tiff for spe­cial­ized test­ing due to only his Sikh arti­cles of faith is, in this con­text, unfair and dis­crim­i­na­tory.  It is this sin­gling out for spe­cial scrutiny – indeed, with the ini­tial pre­cau­tion of requir­ing an escort and observers for the plain­tiff as he was sub­jected to the tests – that has a clear ten­dency to pres­sure the plain­tiff, or other sol­diers who may wish to seek a reli­gious accom­mo­da­tion, to con­form behav­ior and forego reli­gious precepts. Rattan sings

ADL over the last decade has expressed con­cerns and advo­cated on issues of reli­gious accom­mo­da­tion and coer­cion in the mil­i­tary.  We wel­come the court’s rul­ing and state­ment that “the pub­lic has a sig­nif­i­cant inter­est in hav­ing a diverse mil­i­tary, reflec­tive of the com­po­si­tion of our coun­try and accept­ing of reli­gious minori­ties.”  The Army should with­draw its order for spe­cial­ized test­ing of Cap­tain Sim­rat­pal and expe­di­tiously grant his request for a per­ma­nent reli­gious accommodation.

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March 1, 2016 2

Alito Got It Right In Jewish Inmate Case

Yes­ter­day, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a trou­bling lower court deci­sion involv­ing the reli­gious lib­erty rights of an obser­vant Jew­ish inmate from North Car­olina.  In a pow­er­ful dis­sent, Jus­tice Alito pointed out why the lower court was wrong and his fel­low Jus­tices should have taken up the case.supreme-court

Israel Ben-Levi claimed that the North Car­olina Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety (NCDPS) vio­lated his rights under the Free Exer­cise Clause and Reli­gious Land Use and Insti­tu­tion­al­ized Per­sons Act (RLUIPA) by deny­ing his request to study Torah with two other Jew­ish inmates.  In reject­ing his request, NCDPS asserted that the inmate mis­un­der­stood his own faith.  For a group to study Torah, NCDPS claimed, there must be ten Jew­ish men – a minyan – or qual­i­fied Jew­ish leader such as Rabbi.  The lower court agreed with this argu­ment and also found Mr. Ben-Levi was not sub­ject to future harm because he had been trans­ferred to a prison with a Rabbi.

Jus­tice Alito’s dis­sent cor­rectly pointed out that this deci­sion was dis­crim­i­na­tory “[b]ecause NCDPS’s pol­icy rests on its under­stand­ing of Jew­ish doc­trine, the pol­icy does not apply to other reli­gions.”  Fur­ther­more, it vio­lates long­stand­ing First Amend­ment case law against gov­ern­ment inter­pret­ing reli­gious doctrine:

[F]ederal courts have no war­rant to eval­u­ate  “the valid­ity of [Ben-Levi’s] inter­pre­ta­tions.” … By ignor­ing Ben-Levi’s actual beliefs and focus­ing solely on NCDPS’s under­stand­ing of Judaism, respon­dent and the courts below con­sid­ered the wrong question.  

Although the Supreme Court’s rejec­tion of the case does not approve of the lower court deci­sion, we could not agree more with Jus­tice Alito that “the Court’s indif­fer­ence to this dis­crim­i­na­tory infringe­ment of reli­gious lib­erty is disappointing.”

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July 14, 2014 0

Hobby Lobby Elicits Varied Editorial Responses

On June 30, the Supreme Court in Bur­well v. Hobby Lobby affirmed the right of family-owned com­pa­nies to deny employ­ees, based on the reli­gious beliefs of the employer, health insur­ance cov­er­age for con­tra­cep­tives. As Pro­fes­sor Erwin Chemerin­sky warned at the ADL’s 2014 Supreme Court Review, the deci­sion could have far-reaching impli­ca­tions for work­ers’ civil and reli­gious rights.newspapers-hobby-lobby

Edi­to­r­ial boards for the nations’ top news­pa­pers opposed the land­mark deci­sion by a 2–1 ratio. Of the fifty news­pa­pers with the high­est cir­cu­la­tion, twenty-five dis­agreed with the Supreme Court’s posi­tion in Hobby Lobby. Thir­teen sup­ported the deci­sion. Twelve offered no opin­ion on the topic.

Of those peri­od­i­cals that opposed the deci­sion, some objected to the Supreme Court’s increas­ing will­ing­ness to grant legal pro­tec­tions to cor­po­ra­tions that tra­di­tion­ally have been reserved for human beings. The Cleve­land Plain Dealer insisted that “cor­po­ra­tions are not ‘per­sons’ who think, breathe and exer­cise first-amendment rights or prac­tice reli­gious beliefs,” and warned that “[t]reating them as if they are will inevitably nar­row free­doms for oth­ers.” The Detroit Free Press called the deci­sion an expan­sion of “the majority’s already inflated notion of cor­po­rate personhood.”

Other oppo­nents view the deci­sion as a set­back for repro­duc­tive rights. The San Jose Mer­cury News crit­i­cized the Court for fail­ing to rec­og­nize the impor­tance of access to con­tra­cep­tives for women’s rights: “World­wide, the sin­gle great­est fac­tor in lift­ing soci­eties out of poverty is women gain­ing the abil­ity to con­trol when they become preg­nant.” The Min­neapo­lis Star Tri­bunesaid that “allow­ing an employer to choose which type of con­tra­cep­tion mer­its cov­er­age reverts to an ear­lier, darker age in atti­tudes about women’s role in reproduction.”

Still oth­ers fear that the deci­sion opens the door to fur­ther ero­sion indi­vid­u­als’ rights and gov­ern­ment entan­gle­ment in the exer­cise of reli­gion. The New York Times called the deci­sion “a rad­i­cal depar­ture from the court’s his­tory of resist­ing claims for reli­gious exemp­tions from neu­tral laws of gen­eral applic­a­bil­ity when the exemp­tions would hurt other peo­ple.” USA Today warned of the “deeply dis­turb­ing propo­si­tion” that the deci­sion could force the gov­ern­ment to judge “whether a business’s reli­gious prin­ci­ples merit spe­cial treat­ment that its more sec­u­lar com­peti­tors don’t get.” The Wash­ing­ton Post urged Con­gress to limit the dam­age of the deci­sion by leg­isla­tively over­turn­ing it.

Sup­port­ers, how­ever, hail Hobby Lobby as a bold recog­ni­tion of reli­gious lib­erty. The Wall Street Jour­nal called the deci­sion “an impor­tant vin­di­ca­tion of reli­gious lib­erty in this (still, bless­edly) con­sti­tu­tional repub­lic.” The New York Daily News cel­e­brated that Court’s con­clu­sion that “own­ers of closely held com­pa­nies should not be forced to sac­ri­fice their reli­gious lib­erty sim­ply because they incor­po­rated to do business.”

How­ever one views the Court’s deci­sion, Hobby Lobby clearly touches on many polit­i­cal and legal fault lines. The ADL believes that the deci­sion threat­ens many anti-discrimination laws and will work to limit its impact.

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