TSA, airlines tread carefully on religious expression

March 24, 2011

(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.