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Traditional Sikh religious knife or 'Kirpan'

Former Employee Sues IRS Over Ban on Sikh Religious Knife

January 11, 2009 09:01 AM
by Isabel Cowles
A member of the Sikh faith has filed suit against the IRS, alleging religious intolerance led to her firing in 2006 for carrying a kirpan, or small ceremonial knife, to work.

Article of Faith or “Dangerous Weapon”?

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Former government employee, Kawaljeet Kaur Tagore, was fired by the IRS in 2006 and recently filed suit against the agency for prohibiting her from wearing an article of her Sikh faith: a knife called a “kirpan.”

Sikhs wear kirpans at all times; they are intended to remind believers to “protect the weak and promote justice,” according to the Houston Chronicle. The knives have blunt blades and are worn inside a sheath. 

Tagore began working for the IRS in 2004 and formally became a member of the Sikh faith in 2005. At that point, she began wearing a 9-inch kirpan under her clothes. She explained the situation to her supervisor who expressed concern about the knife in the workplace, Tagore’s lawsuit alleges.

Tagore began wearing a smaller kirpan, and was temporarily permitted to work from home to avoid conflict. In January 2006, the IRS required that she report to work with a modified kirpan. When Tagore went to the office with the same kirpan, Federal Protective Service officers prohibited her from entering the building. She was fired in July 2006.

The IRS banned the kirpan, categorizing it as a “dangerous weapon,” even though it failed to set off the security system at Tagore’s office. Similarly shaped objects, including scissors, knives and box cutters, are allowed in Houston’s IRS office building.

“Sikhs should be entitled to work for their government, just like other Americans. In this case, the government put Ms. Tagore in the unacceptable position of choosing between her religion and her job." Harsimran Kaur, the Sikh Coalition's Legal Director, said in a statement.

The lawsuit claims that the IRS violated both the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Reference: Sikhs and the kirpan

The kirpan is one of five articles of faith Sikh members are required to wear at all times as an expression of their belief. According to The Sikh Coalition Web site, “The kirpan was revealed to the last Sikh prophet, Guru Gobind Singh, and made mandatory by him for all initiated Sikhs on March 29, 1699.” It is specifically worn beneath a “gatra,” a strap or belt, which prevents the knife from appearing decorative.   

The Sikh Coalition Web site provides a list of the U.S. judicial decisions regarding Sikhs and articles of their religious faith, including controversies over kirpans in schools and on subway platforms.

Related Topic: Canada struggles with kirpans in public

As in the United States, some Canadian schools, employers and government buildings have struggled to find a balance between religious tolerance and perceived citizen protection.

In 2001, a 12-year-old Sikh student at a Montreal school was banned from carrying his kirpan to class after he dropped it in the schoolyard, inspiring concern among parents and teachers. Five years later, Canada’s highest court ruled that kirpans could be worn in schools. Kirpans are still prohibited in some courtrooms, but Sikh MPs are allowed to wear kirpans in the Canadian House of Commons.

According to a 2007 report on the issue, a Calgary surgeon asked a Sikh patient to remove her kirpan for the safety of fellow medical professionals, prompting a debate among leaders and members of the Sikh community in Calgary.

Although the Sikh faith requires that believers wear the kirpan at all times, Sikhs must be flexible in certain situations, according to one Sikh scholar.  He explained, “[W]hen a person has to travel by air he/she has to remove the kirpan as the air safety regulations take precedence over the religious beliefs.”
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