Democrats push to allow religious headwear within U.S. Congress

Hats and head coverings of any kind were prohibited from the House following the passage of a motion on proper decorum in 1837.

By MAYA MARGIT/THE MEDIA LINE
November 18, 2018 18:36
2 minute read.
Jewish kippa

A member of the Jewish community wears a kippa. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Democrats are seeking to overturn a 181-year-old ban on wearing head coverings in the United States House of Representatives in a bid to accommodate lawmakers’ religious beliefs.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), incoming Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) proposed the rule change as part of a wider reform package, according to U.S. media. The move would enable legislators to don Jewish skullcaps, or kippahs, as well as Islamic headscarves, or hijabs, inside the House chamber of the Capitol.

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The Somali-born Omar became one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress in this month’s midterms. The other, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, does not wear a head covering.

“No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice—one protected by the first amendment. And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift,” Omar wrote over the weekend on her Twitter account.

Hats and head coverings of any kind were prohibited from the House following the passage of a motion on proper decorum in 1837.

“I think [this change is] absolutely harmless,” Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School and head of the International Law Department at Kohelet Forum, told The Media Line. “My understanding is that the original rule doesn’t have anything to do with religion; it’s more connected to what the manners were like in the 1830s when this rule was passed. It used to be considered impolite for people to wear hats indoors, and while that may still be the case, I don’t think a rule on etiquette applies to religious headgear.

“America is not a country like France,” Dr. Kontorovich concluded, referring to the French concept of “laïcité” (literally, secularity), which enshrines secularism as a constitutional value.

Earlier this year, France passed a law banning lawmakers from wearing any religious garb or symbols. This followed similar legislation in 2010, which forbade the wearing of face-coverings such as masks, burqas, niqabs and other veils in public spaces.


“In France, it really is against the law to appear in public in various governmental functions with any kind of religious [garb],” Dr. Kontorovich affirmed. “But in America the separation of church and state just means that the government does not get involved in matters of religion and there is a right of religious observance.”

However, other international law experts contend that government functionaries should not be allowed to outwardly express religiosity.

“In the public sphere or when you’re a public servant, you don’t exhibit your religious beliefs,” Prof. Yossi Shain, head of the School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University, conveyed to The Media Line. “In my opinion, Western society must forbid the wearing of the burqa in society and I also don’t believe that people in government roles should be displaying religious symbols: not Jewish, not Muslim, not Sikh—not anything.”

Accordingly, Dr. Shain does not believe that the Congressional rule should be altered.

“Uncovered heads and faces are part of Western culture,” he asserted. “If you want to wear a yarmulke, please do so in a synagogue. But if in the Congress it was decided that one should not wear a hat, then one shouldn’t do so.”

For more stories go to themedialine.org.

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