Antiquated Regulation Faces Challenges in the 116th U.S. Congress

Congressman Illhan Omar
Member of Congress Illhan Omar

Dr. Siran Jeet Singh—a 2018 Luce/ACLS Fellow for Religion, Journalism, and International Affairs and a Visiting Scholar at New York University Center for Religion and Media—poses an important religious freedom issue in an article on Religion News Service that comes to the fore this year as two observant Muslim women assume office:

Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who will represent Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, is the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress. Ilhan Omar, elected to represent Minnesota’s 5th District, is the first Somali-American woman, the first Minnesotan of color and the first refugee elected to Congress.

“Given that Muslim women have been in the United States since before the nation’s founding, we can cheer the progress represented by the breaking of these glass ceilings, even if it’s upsetting that it has taken this long.

“One way to celebrate is to change rules and customs that implicitly marginalize or exclude those who represent us. Omar is not even in office yet, but she is already making this a priority. Omar, who wears hijab, is pushing to allow religious headwear, such as Muslim hijabs, Jewish kippas and Sikh turbans.”

The point of conflict is a House regulation that has been in place for nearly two centuries:

“Headwear of any kind has been banned from the House chamber since 1837. The rule, designed to outlaw the wearing of hats, was written at a time and by people who likely never imagined religious minorities rising up to help lead this nation. At Omar’s urging, Democratic leaders have proposed in their draft rules for the incoming Congress that religious headwear be permitted on the House floor.”

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., as amended (“Title VII”) makes it clear that regulations prohibiting the wearing of a hijab violate the law, as it prohibits “denial of reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious practices, unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship for the employer.”

As a Sikh, Singh has great empathy for those who have to choose between their faith and their personal, career or political goals. In another article on the Religion News Service website, he writes of a bicycle accident that brought this into focus for him when he thought he might need stitches that would require him to shave off part of his beard:

“When so many Sikhs have given up so much in order to honor their own identities, it’s hard for me to imagine cutting my beard for something so trivial as a split chin…Thankfully, I had not faced these questions in a case of life or death, or faced with religious persecution. God willing, I remain healthy forever, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on it all before the decision is more complicated.”

From its beginnings, the Church of Scientology has recognized that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. In a world where conflicts are often traceable to intolerance of others’ religious beliefs and practices, the Church has, for more than 50 years, made the preservation of religious liberty an overriding concern.

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