Protecting Religious Freedom Has a Domino Effect

Some members of minority religious communities are still forced to decide between serving their country and honoring their religious identities.

Last week, thousands of people gathered in Houston to mourn the death of Harris County (Texas) Sheriff’s Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal. Dhaliwal, who was shot dead during a routine traffic stop in a non-hate crime-related ambush, not only served and protected his community as a law enforcement officer — he also served his religious community and country as a champion of religious freedom.

In 2015, Dhaliwal became the first turbaned Sikh law enforcement officer in Harris County after the county added a religious accommodation policy to its uniform regulations. The change was made thanks to advocacy by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), the Sikh Coalition and Dhaliwal’s colleague, Deputy Navdeep Singh Nijjar. Previously, on-duty officers could not have a beard or wear a turban — forcing some Sikhs, including Dhaliwal, to make the heart-wrenching decision between their careers and their articles of faith.

Dhaliwal and his colleagues’ success in Texas had a domino effect: the same year Dhaliwal was finally allowed to come to work as his whole self — turban, beard and all — the New York City Police Department (NYPD) reached out to Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia to find out how the NYPD could change its own policies to better accommodate observant Sikhs.

But members of minority religious communities have not always been invited enthusiastically to serve without comprising their convictions. Shared experiences of exclusion from public spaces bind marginalized communities together in an “inescapable network of mutuality,” borrowing a phrase from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Richard Foltin, senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Center, explains: “Just as Sikhs are confronted with workplaces that place obstacles to their wearing a turban and beard, even though their dress and grooming presents no real impediment to the performance of their jobs, so also observant Jews sometimes face the danger of losing or being denied jobs because they are obligated to wear a yarmulke or a beard or, in a more frequent situation, must take days off from work in observance of the Sabbath or holy days.”

Indeed, an observant Jew pushed down a domino on behalf of religious freedom before Dhaliwal. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Goldman v. Weinberger that a Jewish Air Force officer did not have a constitutionally protected right to wear a yarmulke while on duty and in Air Force uniform.

In response, Congress included a provision in the 1988 version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act that permits “a member of the armed forces to wear an item of religious apparel while in uniform, except when the secretary of the military department concerned determines that: (1) the wearing of the item would interfere with the performance of military duties; or (2) the item is not neat and conservative.”

Nevertheless, some members of minority religious communities are still forced to decide between serving their country and honoring their religious identities. According to the Sikh Coalition, the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy still have policies that prohibit Sikhs and others from wearing certain articles of faith.

But the dominos set in motion by Goldman and Dhaliwal continue to fall. After Dhaliwal’s death, 98 former and current Sikh service members and law enforcement officers delivered letters to the U.S. Department of Defense and national police agencies to advocate for policy changes that would allow members of minority religious communities to serve with dignity.

We all benefit when our workplaces — public or private — become more diverse. In fact, research shows that Americans who personally know someone from a religious community express warmer feelings toward members of that community and they answer more questions correctly about that community on a religious knowledge survey. And as the American Academy of Religion argues, decreasing religious illiteracy can decrease the bigotry and prejudice that plague our communities and fuel violence.

That’s why we need people like Dhaliwal, who fight for everyone’s right to participate fully in public life. In the words of Arsalan Suleman, the Muslim-American president and chair of America Indivisible: Dhaliwal’s story “is significant because he made the Harris County Sheriff’s Office better — better because it had him on the team, better because their policies now were more consistent with U.S. constitutional protections and better because the sheriff’s office became more welcoming to and representative of Houston’s diverse residents. His service, and his triumph, also made his city of Houston better and our country better — because every time there is a triumph like Dhaliwal’s, as a society we get closer to that more perfect ideal to which we aspire.”

On Friday, Sept. 27, America lost a First Amendment hero who reminded us that we serve our entire country when we stand up for our rights. Do you feel a gentle nudge? That’s Deputy Dhaliwal’s legacy pushing you to knock down barriers against religious freedom for the next generation.

Benjamin P. Marcus is religious literacy specialist at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. His email address is: [email protected].

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