TSA Chief Says No Religious Exemptions for Airport Screenings

November 17, 2010

A passenger at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is subjected to a full-body scan. Paul J. Richards/Getty Images.

During a recent Senate hearing in which TSA Administrator John Pistole spent most of his time discussing and defending new airport screening measures, he also stated clearly that there would be no religious exemptions from the screenings. 

The new procedures require flyers to pass through full body scanners, or what NPR calls an "invasive" pat down by a Transportation Security Administration officer. Opponents have compared the scanners to virtual full-body strip searches. Under scrutiny from the public, Pistole has argued his agency needs to ensure the safety of the plane and passengers, and that the measures balance the need for security, and personal privacy. He even stated that most travelers likely support the new rules:

"If you have two planes getting ready to depart and one, you say, everybody has been thoroughly screened on this plane, and you can either go on that plane or another plane where we have not done a thorough screening because people did not feel comfortable with that, I think most if not all of the traveling public will say, 'I want to go on that plane that has been thoroughly screened.' "

It was later in the discussion when Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) brought up the issue of religious exemptions. From the NPR story:

Ensign said he was concerned by reports that some travelers could get out of the screening by citing religious objections.

"Let's just say I don't want either of them because of religious reasons," Ensign said. "What happens to me?"

Pistole responded: "While I respect and we respect that person's beliefs, that person's not going to get on an airplane."

For Pistole, this is another case of balancing privacy and security. People have religious beliefs, and society respects their right to have them. But commitment to living in a society demands you follow some rules and laws for the sake of the general safety, in this case regarding security on airplanes. Allowing arbitrary exemptions would put the entire venture into question.