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TSA, Airlines Tread Carefully on Religious Expression

(RNS) Air travelers want to feel safe, and federal security officials want to make sure they actually are safe. If only it were that simple.

Misunderstandings over religious expression have led to recent incidents that prompted apologies from airlines. On March 13, agents with the Transportation Security Administration removed a Muslim woman in a headscarf from a Southwest Airlines flight after airline staff deemed her suspicious.

Crew members thought the woman said “It’s a go” into her cell phone, when she actually said, “I have to go” because the plane was about to take off.

That same day, Orthodox Jews triggered a security alert on an Alaska Airlines flight when they strapped on tefillin, or ritual straps for the arms and forehead, and began to pray in a foreign language.


Such incidents highlight an ongoing challenge for airlines and the TSA to allow for religious expression while also taking prudent security measures. The domain puts personnel in the sometimes uncomfortable position of assessing: When does a prayer, a garment, or religious paraphernalia constitute a threat?

“We are sensitive to travelers’ concerns,” TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said, “but security is not optional.”

Muslim and Sikh groups say it’s an ongoing problem — almost always directed against religious minorities — that hasn’t improved much since the 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted widespread security crackdowns.

Muslim women in headscarves and Sikh men in turbans are routinely subjected to extra pat-downs at security checkpoints, advocates say, thus stoking fears among already-tense fellow passengers.


“Imagine you’re walking through the airport and you see this group of people, all fitting this certain profile, who are all pulled aside,” said Ameena Mirza Qazi, deputy executive director of the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group. “It feeds into pervasive biases that people have.”

Even before they clear security, several religious groups chafe at full-body scanners that they consider immodest; the 18-member Fiqh Council of North America last year issued a fatwa (religious edict) that said the scanners violate Islamic law.

TSA takes steps to allow for religious needs, Koshetz explained — allowing travelers to forgo a full-body scan, for example, and instead receive a thorough pat-down by a person of the same gender. Those who wear head coverings or loose-fitting clothing may undergo additional screening, she said, and in some cases need to remove headwear to show “the head area is free of a detectable threat item.”


The TSA neither condones nor practices religious profiling, she said.

Some religious minorities have welcomed TSA’s accommodations. Orthodox Jews, for instance, dropped complaints about new screening procedures last year after TSA announced the option of same-gender pat-downs. The Hindu American Foundation likewise has no pending concerns or requests to modify TSA procedures, according to Managing Director Suhag Shukla.

Others, however, feel they’re being unfairly targeted. Sikhs have been working with TSA for years to craft screening procedures that respect turban wearers, according to Amardeep Singh, program director for the Sikh Coalition. Yet Sikhs continue to endure stigmatizing turban pat-downs, Singh said, even though scanners can purportedly see through fabric.


“We’re still trying to get from (TSA) the reasons why the turbans require this extra scrutiny,” Singh said. “It sends the wrong message to the other passengers. It singles us out in a way that builds into the discrimination that the community already feels as a result of our religious appearance.”

Some are more concerned with the practices of airlines than the TSA. The Orthodox Union, which represents Orthodox Jews, is developing initiatives to educate airlines about Jewish observances, including the use of tefillin and prayer shawls. Alaska Airlines is developing new training materials in consultation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.

“The plane is controlled by a more idiosyncratic sense of what’s going on, and there’s no TSA policy” to heed, said Michael Broyde, project director at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. “There’s a lack of common sense on many sides” on which types of religious expression should be permitted during flight.


CAIR also sees the need for improvement in the wider airline industry. The organization has seen a recent increase in complaints from Muslims and other religious minorities who say they’ve been “ejected from aircrafts for no reason at all,” Qazi said.

The airline industry says staffers often have had training to make them aware of various groups’ religious customs and practices.

“Airlines deeply understand, respect and are very sensitive to their customers and employees who comprise varied cultures and religions and have specialized training for their employees in this regard,” said Victoria Day, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association.

As policies get fine-tuned, TSA and airlines say they’re committed to the principle of religious freedom, both in airports and at 30,000 feet. But legal experts caution that claims of religious freedom face limits, and don’t ever trump security considerations.

“There’s no notion in our society that religion entitles you to opt out of reasonable security measures,” Broyde said.

– G. JEFFREY MacDONALD, Religion News Service

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Evie

    The scanners violate *US* law, not just Islamic. Nothing they can do can keep us 100% safe, and all of these ridiculous and intrusive procedures they’ve been moving to don’t increase our security by more than the tiniest margin. It’s all about making people “feel” safer….and about the government covering its behind.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment John

    “Security Theater” does not make you safe, it merely diminishes your Constitutional rights.

    The terrorists have won the battle, they have our government doing their dirty work for them.

  • Wimpie

    I think its going to get a lot worse. In fact TSA has only moved into one direction. Virtually each incident is worse than the last.

    At the current rate of decline, within a decade people will be enduring cavity searches. TSA will eventually be armed and the TSA abuse stories of today will eventually be stories of passengers being shot or tazzed.

    Think that is to extreme? Well 10 years ago, who could have imagined that people would be routinely irradiated, have their genitals groped, and be the subject of police brutality for refusing such?

    TSA and DHS is leading this country into fascism.

    We don’t need terrorists. TSA/DHS is terrorizing America in a way that an Al Qaeda never could.

  • Jeff

    I have a very important point to make which I hope doesn’t violate the rules of conduct. I apologize in advance for the medical words used for sexual organs, but I think it is important for people to understand EXACTLY what the TSA is doing.

    I don’t know what world the Emory professor lives in, but in the United States the 4th amendment protects us against unreasonable searches of our person.

    To be more precise, the TSA has instituted strip searches – no matter how convenient using technology – with an alternative of being touched on our sexual organs. The police CANNOT strip search people unless they are prisoners or under arrest and have a suspicion of having hidden weapons or contraband. There is NO WAY the goverment can proactively stripsearch you and be legal. If they are, then the police can do that to random people everywhere for no reason. The 4th amendment was created because the British would search people and their possessions at will.

    The “terrorists” have won if we continue to let the government touch our vaginas, penises, testicles, and breasts or to see us naked with VP-TB naked scanners. It is especially disheartening that some people are willing to give up the rights of their children as well. This is usually child pornography when you transmit the pictures of naked children.

    And, if you are unlucky enough to have a metal joint replacement or a masectomy scar, the TSA will want to grope you even after seeing you naked. Every time.

    I sincerely hope readers really understand the unreasonableness that is being illegally thrust upon the formerly free United States.

    For those who are concerned about security, the last time an AIRLINE PASSENGER set off a bomb, on a flight that took off in the United States, was 49 years ago in 1962 when a Missouri flight was bombed with a dynamite bomb in the lavatory towel holder.

    Think about this for a moment. I could make a better case for outlawing guns to prevent 12,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries EACH YEAR. Of course, the 2nd amendment prevents this.

    I would be very open to a legal option of allowing the AIRLINES to offer “naked scanning and groping” flights for those who are scared of the current odds of 0 people killed in 49 years by airline passengers setting off bombs.

  • Pingback: TSA, Airlines Tread Carefully on Religious Expression – (blog) | XRC Training Solutions

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jon Deniro

    ““There’s no notion in our society that religion entitles you to opt out of reasonable security measures,” Broyde said.”

    “Reasonable security measures”??????????????????????????????

    Requiring men, women, and children to be viewed naked by strangers and/or sexually assaulted by thugs is reasonable?

    Apparently Broyde should put down the erotic S&M fiction books for a few minutes and read the U.S. Constitution.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment jeffrey

    I am a Catholic priest. I wear the full length robe of my religious order. I always get called aside for a full pat down. Catholics are the biggest religious group in the world. This isn’t simply a minority issue. It’s about safety. Let’s not give the world one more reason to fear and despise religion by acting like we are above the law.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    Jeff you forgot to mention the man who wore an ostomey bag and told the agents ahead of time, and they didn’t communicate with him at all, just squeezed the bag dislocating it and urine ran all over his clothes and everywhere else! This is outrageous, disrespectful and stupid.
    I read in a boutique magazine for women this week that you can buy this terrific bra for 37.00, with a proper uplift without wires so you can wear it on any airplane trip! This is definitely not the same America since George W. Bush became our President. Jeffrey I’m Christian, but not a far right fundamentalist tea party kind. Let’s put religion aside Father and just use common-sense, and logic, the kind our America used during the Second World War.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    Read today on msnbc that a Wiccan TSA employee was fired because they said she was late once, and wouldn’t explain her Wiccan religion to a fellow employee who was insisting the Wiccan was putting a spell on her car! Yes, her car. The attacked Wiccan said she wouldn’t explain her religion to her, didn’t think a Jew, or any other believer would be asked to do that. And of course they wouldn’t have been. The TSA employee entered a complaint about regulations not being followed before all of the complaints about her. She also said she didn’t have the power to put spells on anyone, too ridiculous. The pic of her of course showed three of her cats, two black, the other a beautiful calico. They also showed two dogs, one happily gnawing on his toy bone, and the other wagging his tail. There were lots of pet toys all over, a bit like my home. My question is this, are Wiccans the next guinea pigs to start in on, now that GLBT seem to be attaining their Constitutional rights? Oh, I forgot she is hiring a lawyer.

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