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Hats Off to Understanding

Certain religious customs dictate head coverings and adherents don't mean to break.

May 24, 1997|NORINE DRESSER | Folklorist Norine Dresser is the author of "Multicultural Manners" (Wiley, 1996). Contact her through Voices or by e-mail:

A Princeton computer science professor and his wife enter a New York Mexican restaurant for the first time. The manager approaches and requests that the professor remove his hat. The man says he cannot because of his religious beliefs. Flatly, the manager insists that he must remove it or else not be served. The professor objects; an argument ensues. A lawsuit is pending.

What does it mean?

The customer, Mr. Singh, is a member of the Indian-based Sikh religion that requires men to wear turbans at all times. Mr. Singh explained that the turban is a symbol of pride and removing it would be the greatest form of self-humiliation, yet the manager stood fast by the restaurant's strict no-hats policy and would not serve him.

Elsewhere, religious hat conflicts have found resolution. Accommodations have been made for Orthodox Jews who must wear yarmulkes (skullcaps) even when serving in the military. Despite the dangers, Amish construction workers are allowed to wear their black felt hats instead of hard hats when on the job.

Other religious clothing customs have caused legal problems. In 1994, a Merced school suspended three Khalsa Sikh children for wearing kirpans under their clothes. The kirpan is a blunt-edged sheathed knife and one of five items that must be worn by Khalsa Sikhs at all times.

Lawyers representing the Sikhs eventually convinced the court that the kirpan was not a weapon, but a sacred symbol of commitment to defend the weak and oppressed. Further, no children had ever used them as weapons on U.S. school grounds.

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