The case example that is presented, that of Magda, is an interesting test case for the question of discrimination because the behavior exhibited by the owner of the bank is certainly discriminatory but raises questions about the rights of business owners to enact policies that they believe are essential for the safety of their patrons. Certainly, the bank owner reacted to Magda on the basis of her religious clothing, which is discriminatory, but on the other hand in certain situations it seems appropriate to have certain rules governing the behavior of one’s customers. The challenge for the bank manager is to balance the acceptance of diverse cultural values and customs with the need to protect the safety of the bank. The issue about wearing burqas has come up frequently in modern times because, for example, when women have gone to ceremonies in which they are becoming citizens, or are applying for a driver’s license, an argument can be made that it is important for the identity of that person to be revealed and documented for various reasons, including the need of the state to have a record of its citizens. For example, it is conceivable that a person with criminal intent might wear a burqa in order to disguise his or her identity while committing a crime. In one sense, if someone walked into a bank wearing a hood that covered his or her face, that would be considered threatening as well. That is not to equate the religious reasons for wearing a burqa with criminality, only to suggest that the issue in public places is the anonymity that can be seen as a threat.
In this case, however, the bank manager violated standards guiding intercultural communication in business contexts, because in conflict management, communication is the dominant characteristic in managing such issues (Porter, 2009.) The bank manager appeared to be lacking in knowledge about cultural diversity, or else he would have expressed respect for Magda’s religious practices that include modesty, and could have used accommodation to perhaps suggest that she meet with a bank officer who is a female in a private room where she might feel comfortable to remove her burqa, or at least reveal her face. The bank manager did not do a good job of managing intercultural conflict, which involves keeping an open mind and developing techniques to avoid conflict (Porter, 2009.)
Regarding the legality of this situation, there are two essential forms of protection that would support Magda’s case that she was being discriminated against. Citizens of the United States are guaranteed freedom of religious expression which includes the right to wear religious clothing and symbols under two separate federal laws. The First Amendment guarantees that the government may not restrict religious freedom or freedom of expression so that wearing clothing specific to one’s faith can be regarded as exercising religious freedom (Baisden, 2010.) This translates into the ability to wear shirts that bear political or religious messages, religious jewelry such as crosses, Jewish stars, or other religious symbols in religious headdress such as turbans or hijabs. Dressing in any manner including those which reinforce one’s religious beliefs is indeed a constitutional right.
Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, the constitutional right to express religious freedom in public places was not guaranteed. Restaurants, offices, and movie theaters, or other “places of public accommodation” were not obligated to accept people’s freedom to wear religious clothing or religious symbols in such venues. The Civil Rights Act guarantees equal rights to everyone in public environments, and Title VII the physically focuses on the workplace. For someone like Magda, wearing a burqa is more than a fashion statement, but rather it is an important aspect of her religious identity, and supports beliefs and customs that are vital to her. The legal protections of the United States are unique and crucial to the freedoms that are guaranteed in the Constitution, and the prohibition of discrimination against people on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference is one of the most important guarantees that Americans have. Violation of these rights frequently end up going through the court system, where there is an opportunity to reinforce the illegality of discriminating against people.
In certain situations, however, the Constitution permits neutral rules that apply to everyone, such as a rule prohibiting all head-coverings, whether religious or not (Baisden, 2010.) In addition, there is additional protection on the federal level that prohibits the federal government as well as officials of the federal government from limiting the ability of women to wear hijab; a law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act forbids that activity unless the government is able to show that its actions were the “least restrictive means” for achieving a “compelling governmental interest.” Although this Act does not apply to the governments of individual states, different states have enacted their own versions of this law, or provided interpretations of their constitutions that extend similar protections. For example, in California, Gov. Brown signed a bill in 2012 and added “religious dress” as well as “religious grooming” practices to the definition of protected religious creed, religion, religious observance, and religious belief (Lewis, 2012.) This law spelled out the practices of religious dress as including worrying or carrying of religious clothing, hand, or face coverings… that are part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious faith.” If Magda resided in California, there is no question that she would be able to utilize such a law to take legal action against the bank owner in the situation presented.
- Baisden, C. (2010). Wearing Religious Attire at Work: Freedom of Expression or Disruption? Retrieved from New Jersey State Bar Foundation: http://www.njsbf.org
- Lewis, J. (2012, October 15). Making the Burqa Fashionable?–New California Law Adds Religious Dress and Grooming Protections. Retrieved from Lexology: http://www.lexology.com
- Porter, R. , Samovar, L. & McDaniel, E. (2009). Communication between Cultures, 7th ed. Wadsworth Publishing: Belmont.