‘No swords at work’ rule: Is that religious bias?

Anyway you slice it, employers these days should never deny an employee’s religious accommodation request without first checking with a lawyer. It’s just all very complicated with so many religions and their different rules on grooming, clothing and attendance. But can you draw the line when a religion requires followers to wear a sword—even in the workplace?

Case in Point: After Kawaljeet Tagore was hired by an IRS office in Texas, she switched religions to the Sikh faith. She said the Sikh’s “Articles of Faith” required her to wear five items at all times. This included a “kirpan,” which is a ceremonial sword or knife approximately nine inches long.

IRS officials offered several potential accommodations, including making the sword blunt, sewing it into a sheath, making it only 2.5 inches long and keeping it in her locked car.

Tagore responded that the sword was already blunted and the other accommodations violated her religious beliefs. Sorry, no can do. So she showed up to work faithfully with her kirpan and was fired.

Tagore sued under a variety of federal discrimination laws. The IRS argued that it simply could not allow swords at work, citing a federal law banning dangerous weapons in federal facilities (18 U.S.C. § 930)

What happened next? Let’s cut to the chase … the IRS wanted the case quickly thrown out of court. But the judge disagreed and sent the case moving forward, saying, “Courts typically may not subject the sincerity of professed religious beliefs to too much scrutiny and that claims of a sincere religious belief have been accepted on little more than a finding that that the individuals assertion is credible.” (Tagore v. United States, 5th Cir., 11/13/13)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court

  1. No fishing. Don’t even think of asking applicants, “Do you have any religious beliefs that would prevent you from working here?” You can only hire based on skill, talent and abilities.  
  2. Review no-no-never-ever policies. Federal, state and local laws prohibit discrimination based on religion. While you may think you found a clever way to skirt the laws by having a “no swords, no knives, no exceptions ever” policy, this ruling shows that you must still consider religious accommodations on a case-by-case basis when the situation arises.
  3. Have faith. When it comes to religious issues, reach out to your HR resources and employment attorneys to help you engage in the right analysis and make the right decisions before you fall on your own organization’s sword.