Letters to the Editor

Respect amounts to more than doffing a hat
Tuesday, June 17, 2003

I read with interest the column in the June 6 Faith & Values section about the trouble Sikhs have entering courtrooms while wearing their turbans. This same issue was an important component in the founding of the United States.

In 1670, while still in England, William Penn (subsequently the founder of Pennsylvania) was arrested for preaching the Quaker doctrine in the streets of London. During his trial, he refused to remove his hat as part of the Quakers' religious testimony against "hat honor" (the Quakers believed that only God deserved such honor, not men).

Just as in the Sikh cases, those London judges claimed that hat removal was required for their respect. What was clear was that it was not respect that the judges wanted but blind obedience to authority.

While Penn was acquitted by a brave jury that stood up to the London judges' attempt to railroad him, he was ultimately fined 40 marks for contempt of court for wearing the hat.

This episode resonated strongly with the Founding Fathers, for when the Bill of Rights was being debated, there was discussion about whether freedom of assembly should be included in the First Amendment. Some opposed including the right, not because they were against it but because they considered it trivially included in freedom of speech. During this debate, one representative made a direct reference to the William Penn incident of 100 years earlier:

"He supposes it (freedom of assembly) no more essential than whether a man has a right to wear his hat or not; but let me observe to him that such rights have been opposed, and a man has been obliged to pull off his hat when he appeared before the face of authority; people have also been prevented from assembling together on their lawful occasions, therefore it is well to guard against such stretches of authority, by inserting the privilege in the declaration of rights."

Yet, even today, the face of authority tries to oblige men (in this case, the Sikhs) to pull off their hats in its presence, claiming the act is necessary for respect. Respect is inside of a person, not worn about his body. I guess that the Founding Fathers never realized that such a right would be infringed, or they might well have been forced to make a lengthy enumeration of such privileges in their declaration of rights.


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