Judges should allow religious headdress in courtrooms

Friday, June 06, 2003

Tarunjit Singh Butalia

In the fall of 1978, a naturalized Sikh American accompanied his wife to U.S. District Court in Columbus to get her American citizenship. Presiding Judge Joseph Kinneary stopped the naturalization and ordered a U.S. marshal to ask the Sikh to remove his turban. The Sikh explained that wearing it was part of his religion. The marshal said this was the judge's order; the Sikh had no option but to leave. The incident was reported in The Dispatch and drew strong public condemnation.

Now, nearly quarter of a century later, the same issue has resurfaced for the Sikh community and other people of faith who are required to cover their heads in public.

In November 2002, a U.S.-born Sikh student at Ohio State University appeared in Franklin County Municipal Court for a traffic violation. When the Sikh's turn came, Judge Bruce Jenkins abruptly stood and left the courtroom. The bailiff told the Sikh: "I have to be brutally honest. The judge refuses to see you unless you remove your headdress." The Sikh asked, "Is he aware that this is an issue of religious expression?" The bailiff sternly replied, "Yes."

This seems to be a matter of intolerance, not ignorance.

And to make matters worse, The Dispatch of May 6 reported that Jenkins is alleged to have insulted a senior citizen, a practicing Muslim for 30 years, for wearing a religious headdress in the courtroom. The Ohio Supreme Court and the state Bar Association are investigating the complaints against Jenkins, the county's longest-sitting jurist.

As we celebrate Ohio's Bicentennial, nearly 1,000 Sikh American families live in the state. Under constitutional guarantees, Sikhs continue proudly to wear symbols of their faith, including turbans of nearly all colors. The Sikh faith forbids cutting of body hair. Sikh men sport beards and wear turbans as a religious commitment to keep their uncut hair. Some Sikh women also wear turbans.

Many observant Jews, Christian nuns and Muslims also wear religious headdresses. It would well serve the judicial branch to respect the choice of people of faith to keep their heads covered.

A recent dictum of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on this issue is worth quoting:

"Tolerance usually is the best course in a pluralistic nation. Accommodation of religiously inspired conduct is a token of respect for, and a beacon of welcome to, those whose beliefs differ from the majority's. The best way for the judiciary to receive the public's respect is to earn that respect by showing a wise appreciation of cultural and religious diversity. Obeisance differs from respect; to demand the former in the name of the latter is self-defeating. It is difficult for us to see any reason why a Jew may not wear his yarmulke in court, a Sikh his turban, a Muslim woman her chador, or a Moor his fez. Most spectators will continue to doff their caps as a sign of respect for the judiciary; those who choose to keep heads covered as a sign of respect for (or obedience to) a power higher than the state should not be cast out of court or threatened with penalties."

The state Supreme Court, Judicial Conference and Bar Association should include religious-headdress sensitivity in their diversity training. In turn, minority faith communities need to be patient and realize that seeing others wearing a religious headdress is a relatively new phenomenon for most Americans, who need time to become comfortable around others who appear different.

In 1978, soon after the media reported on Kinneary's insensitivity, the honorable judge invited the Sikh American to his office, where he offered an unconditional apology. Although Kinneary died on Feb. 14, he is remembered with respect. His prompt apology to the Sikh for not knowing the significance of his turban was well-received and respected, and demonstrates why he deserved to have the federal courthouse on Marconi Boulevard named after him. One can only hope that other jurists will take after his example.

Tarunjit Singh Butalia is chair of the Inter faith Committee of World Sikh Council — America Region, secretary of the Dublin-based Sikh Educational and Religious Foundation and a member of the Ohio Bicentennial Commission's Religious Experience Advisory Council.

Copyright © 2003, The Columbus Dispatch