The Annual Dinner of the Bay Area branch of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, took place Sunday evening, October 26 at the Marriott Hotel in Santa Clara. CAIR is a national organization that works "to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding."
There was celebration that evening over a case in which CAIR had been involved recently. In September, the clothing merchandiser Abercrombie and Fitch decided to settle two cases against it. One had been brought by a Muslim woman who was fired from a store in San Mateo for wearing a hijab at work. She was told she had to choose between her job and her religious commitment. Abercrombie & Fitch argued that hijabs were not compatible with their "look policy," but they ultimately chose to settle this case and a second case in which a Muslim woman claimed that she had not been hired because she wore a hijab to the interview.
Early this month, however, a federal appeals court ruled in Oklahoma ruled in favor of Abercrombie & Fitch in yet another case that centered on a woman who said she was not hired because she was wearing of the hijab. The lower court had found against Abercrombie & Fitch, but the appeals court overturned the decision on the grounds that the woman had not asked for religious accommodation.
In Quebec, Canada, the ruling Parti Quebecois is planning to introduce a Charter of Quebec Values that would potentially ban public employees from wearing religious symbols or clothing such as hijabs, Sikh turbans, Jewish kippot, or large Christian crosses or crucifixes. One result of the proposal is that demonstrations in Montreal have brought Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs together in opposition. “In a society that’s more and more multicultural, there need to be common rules and values,” said Bernard Drainville, the National Assembly member who drafted the Charter. How would the rules be enforced? By “common sense,” he replied, according to an Associated Press story.
Brian J. Grim is a senior researcher at the Pew Center Religion and Life Project. Last April, he gave a TEDx talk at the Vatican on "Religious Freedom by the Numbers." He tracks limitations on religious freedom through government restrictions and social hostilities, and notes how high governmental control of religions is closely correlated with attacks on religious groups. Grim writes a blog called "the Weekly Number," with weekly updates on global restrictions on religion.
What restrictions, if any, are appropriate on religious expression in the public arena? While we might, as the mission statement at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio puts it, "welcome, serve, and celebrate the diverse spiritual wisdom and faith traditions of the Bay Area," should that activity be carried on in private settings, leaving us to "get along" with each other in the office, the school, the bank or on the bus because we can overlook our religious identity? Or is there an important role for all of us in learning to understand, appreciate, and respect the visible display of religious commitment?