Religious Helmet Exemption?

February 15, 2008
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

One Canadian Sikh is seeking an exemption for Ontario s mandatory helmet law based on religious grounds  with other Canadian provinces allowing Sikhs to ride without helmets.
One Canadian Sikh is seeking an exemption for Ontario’s mandatory helmet law based on religious grounds, with other Canadian provinces allowing Sikhs to ride without helmets.

It’s no surprise that motorcycle riders have strong opinions about mandatory helmet laws. But can a rider refuse to wear a helmet based on religious convictions?

The issue is making the rounds now with our Canadian neighbors to the north as an Ontario man challenges the province’s mandatory helmet law. According to numerous wire reports, Baljinder Badesha, a 39-year-old Sikh is challenging a ticket he received for riding without a helmet.

As a Sikh, Badesha objects to wearing a helmet based on religious belief that only a turban cover his hair. Other Canadian provinces have enacted legal exemptions for Sikhs riding motorcycles based on religious grounds. Badesha is supported in his legal dispute by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

U.S. helmet laws are not uniform for the entire country, varying on a state-by-state basis. Checking the SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund) website, the only legal helmet challenge in U.S. courts based on Sikh religious grounds was Buhl v. Hannigan in 1993, which challenged California’s mandatory helmet law.

The California Appellate court sided with in favor of the state in Buhl v. Hannigan, deeming California’s mandatory helmet law was “not rendered unconstitutional just because it incidentally impacts a person’s religious practices.”

The United States has, however, made legal exceptions to Sikhs and other individuals based on religious grounds.

In the late ’70s OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) exempted Amish and Sikh workers who refused to wear hard hats based on religious grounds. In the ’90s the decision was revised, broadening the general exemption to all individuals who “for reasons of personal religious convictions, object to wearing hard hats in the workplace.” But OSHA also included a clause that was, in essence, an exemption of the exemption stating “There may be, however, circumstances in the future that would involve a hard hat hazard sufficiently grave to raise a compelling governmental interest for requiring the wearing of hard hats, notwithstanding employee personal religious convictions.”

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