The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically protects the practice of religion in this country. While there have been few exceptions to this rule, mostly in cases where a religion may lead to harm, it has constantly and clearly protected the rights of people to practice in the way they see fit.
When a recent story by TBR News Media broke on social media, based on several readers’ comments, it looked like many people were confused when it came to freedom of religion.
The article reported on a Stony Brook University graduate wearing a turban, who was refused admission into a Port Jefferson restaurant because the establishment has a no-headgear policy on Friday and Saturday nights. The manager was allegedly sticking to the restaurant’s policy, while either being unaware or ignoring the unconstitutionality of refusing a person service based on religious attire. The customer in question practices Sikhism, where males wear turbans as articles of faith in public.
While the restaurant owner said he would change the rule, the event and comments on social media showcase a particular ignorance of the most foundational law in the U.S. Unfortunately, many readers have said they thought the manager had the right to make the call and refuse the graduate service.
They are wrong. Our Constitution protects our expression of religion, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin — or religion. Whether a Sikh is wearing a turban, or a Jewish man is wearing a yarmulke, they cannot be asked to remove their head covering in order to get a drink or something to eat, just like service can’t be denied to a nun in her habit or a Muslim woman wearing a hijab.
Freedom of religion in this country even protects employees of that restaurant and other businesses when it comes to practicing their religions. State and federal laws, unless causing undue hardship on the operation of business, require employers to make accommodations, within reason, for workers whether they need a break to pray or take a day off to observe their Sabbath or celebrate a religious holiday. The employer may ask them to make up the hours, but they can’t deny an employee time off for religious reasons unless it will be detrimental to a business, for example, due to a small staff. So, whether a Christian can’t work Sundays, or a Muslim needs to take a break to pray, an employer cannot dissuade them from doing so.
Employers must also allow dress and grooming practices that employees follow for religious reasons, including not only head coverings but certain hairstyles or facial hair such as the Sikh beard. So, as Americans, whether it’s as a customer or an employee, we are free to practice our religions.
Sikhs have been active in the U.S. Armed Forces, where they have been given special exception to wear turbans, while remaining as dedicated as any other service member. As we celebrate Memorial Day, May 27, remembering those who died to protect our rights, let us also not forget the principles that are being protected.