Trilochan Singh Oberoi, a Folsom resident, spent nearly six years fighting the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, even after the State Personnel Board ruled that the department had discriminated against him.
“There is no question of safety, they are talking trash,” Trilochan Singh told SikhNN. “I was in the (Indian) navy for 26 years, and also was a ship’s captain for 10 years. I used masks in firefighting and underwater conditions. No water or smoke killed me.”
Since his first complaint in 2006, there has been a significant development with regard to wearing a gas mask over a beard. The U.S. Army has successfully tested gas masks on Sikh soldiers in the last two years. All three passed the test during basic training.
“How can someone die wearing a gas mask with the Army but not get a job with a state agency?” said Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, Trilochan Singh’s lawyer.
The attorney general’s office did not return several phoned and emailed requests for an interview. The corrections department said it had no comment because the case is under litigation.
The new attorney general took the case on behalf of the corrections department, and on Jan. 6, 2011, three days after she was sworn into office, she filed statements in Sacramento Superior Court arguing that religion could not trump regulations. Harris, an Indian American, is asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit at the next hearing on April 19.
The attorney general can refuse to represent a state agency if she reasoned that its position was not legal or ethical, said Harmeet Kaur, also an attorney with the Sikh Coalition. The governor also has the right to order the corrections department to comply.
The coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and four Asian and Muslim organizations also wrote a letter to Harris, and to Governor Jerry Brown this week asking him to protect the civil rights of state employees.
“We find the California attorney general’s adversarial posture in this case to be demeaning to religious minorities and utterly inconsistent with your own obligation to defend civil rights for all Californians,” the letter says. “…We respectfully urge you to use your authority to restore the civil rights of Mr. Oberoi without delay and send a clear message to all state agencies in California that unlawful discrimination will not be tolerated.”
According to court documents, Trilochan Singh applied in March 2005 for a position as corrections officer. It took more than a year for him to come to the last of many application requirements: the gas-mask fit test. When he appeared for the test, he was asked to shave off his beard. He refused. Explaining that his beard was religiously mandated or that he had previously worn respirators and gas masks did not help.
According to documents that Harris submitted in court, several corrections department employees testified that the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration required the gas-mask fit test, and that it was the department’s policy that all applicants appear beardless for the test. There were no exceptions.
The corrections department uses chemical agents to respond to alarms. Its officers use the MSA Advantage 1000, a full-face and tight-fitting mask that forms a seal around the wearer's mouth and nose.
An industry expert also testified that “an individual with a beard who rolled the beard up would not be able to safely wear a tight-fitting face piece.”
Yet the U.S. Army uses gas masks that look very similar, and Sikh soldiers have worn them under combat conditions.
Trilochan Singh tried many times to resolve the issue with the corrections department but to no avail.
“I got fed up making calls to the pre-employment office,” he said. “I finally gave up. They told me to write a letter.”
He wrote a letter to the department requesting an accommodation for his beard, and then spent the next nine months seeking a response.
“They ignored him and refused to hire him,” Harmeet Kaur said.
Meanwhile he found two jobs, working as an hourly employee at Wal-Mart, and as a substitute math teacher.
“I should be getting $7,000 to $8,000 per month with benefits and working 8 hours a day, not $2,300 from two jobs and working 12 hours a day,” he said in the phone interview.
In February 2007, Trilochan Singh filed a religious discrimination complaint with the State Personnel Board. In November 2008, the board ruled that the corrections department discriminated against Trilochan Singh and ordered it to consider reasonable alternative accommodations, to determine if it accommodated or currently accommodates other officers that wear beards, and if it can accommodate him in the same manner. The board also ordered the corrections department to expedite the pre-employment process for Trilochan Singh.
“Harmeet discussed with the (department) that he can apply for another job, other than a corrections officer,” Trilochan Singh said, referring to a desk job. “I find myself equally qualified and much more educated than their people.” He has a bachelor’s degree in physics, chemistry and math.
“Harmeet kept on taking but they were not responding.”
When she threatened a lawsuit, the department responded. In February 2009, the department’s lawyer told Trilochan Singh that he would have to again go through the application process because he re-applied for a job.
“Now two years had passed, the original verdict was in 2008, nothing happened,” Trilochan Singh said. “You have to stand in queue again, filling forms, waiting for a vacancy.
“You are not accommodating me at all.”
“Despite the court order, they told him to get in the back of the line… start from scratch,” Harmeet Kaur added. “They were not obeying the spirit of the court ruling. They were rude and obstructionist.”
In July 2009, Harmeet Kaur filed a lawsuit complaining that the department continued to refuse to explore alternative accommodations or expedite his pre-employment application process.
“I have lived an honest and clean life, seen half the world,” Trilochan Singh said. “I did not come here to make big career, I had worked for 36 years. I came here to the land of justice, to (eventually) retire here.
“But they have shattered my trust.”
Trilochan Singh, now 64, is asking for a jury trial. If he wins his case, the court could order the corrections department to make a public declaration that its policies, practices, procedures, conditions, and customs violated his First Amendment rights. The court also could order it to award back pay, front pay, hiring, benefits, seniority and punitive damages.
“They just don’t want to accommodate Sikhs,” Trilochan Singh said. “This is definitely a case of discrimination. My contention is I have wasted five or six years.”