Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Religious freedom is not absolute

Trilochan Oberoi is a United States citizen that lives in California. He is a Sikh. He has applied for the position of a corrections officer with The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He has passed all the tests, his background check is clean and is deemed tough enough. For all reasons other than one, he should get the job. What is holding back the department from giving it to him? He won’t shave his beard.

Sikh’s in part, believe that they should look like their creator made them. If he cuts his beard (and his hair, which doesn’t appear to be an issue here) he would be violating one of the tenets of his belief. But, the department of corrections’ policy is that every man keep his face clean shaved. This allows for a gas mask to fit properly.

Oberoi is suing to have the department’s policy changed because it would be a violation of his religion to shave his beard.

We all know the quote from the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The word “Congress” in this case, via the Fourteenth Amendment, means any law making or policy setting body in the United States. The California Department of Correction and Rehilibation is a function of the state of California. It appears that “congress” in this case, the legislative branch of California, has a policy that prohibits the free exercise of a religion. End of story.

Well, not so fast.

Never did the Founding Fathers, anyone else that voted in support of the Constitution, anyone that has ruled on cases involving religion or people living in any responsible community believe that it means that the right is absolute. Public safety is the most important issue. Of course, congress should not make laws without any reason, but when the public safety is involved, all rights are subordinate.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s policy that men keep their beards shaved so that a gas mask can fit properly is not a violation of Oberoi’s religious freedom. The policy is there for a reason, so that men can be sent into a situation where tear gas will be used. If the commander of the guards can’t be certain about an individual’s ability to perform at the peak of performance, in this case Oberoi, he should not have the job.

The phrase “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are not just three words strung in any order. They are in order of importance. Life being the most important. If communities can’t help protect the lives of the individuals in the community, all liberties would be in jeopardy. Mandating that every corrections officer shave his beard is a way that the community can help individuals protect the lives of everyone.

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