“SALDEF has always been sensitive to the needs of the Sikh American community and has risen to provide new services and resources consistently and effectively on a shoe-string budget,” said Manjit Singh, co-founder and chairman of the board.
It’s most significant accomplishment in the last year was the repeal of an Oregon law that banned teachers from wearing religious garb. Those involved in the repeal were among the honorees recognized Saturday night at the advocacy group’s annual gala in Washington.
THE KKK STATUTE
An Oregon state statute that was originally crafted by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s to ban Catholic nuns from teaching in its public schools eventually also prevented Jews, Muslims and Sikhs from working as teachers. In the 1980s, a young teacher named Karta Kaur Khalsa lost her job when she refused to take off her dastaar. As a member of Sikh Dharma, founded by Yogi Harbhajan Singh Khalsa in Eugene, Oregon, the community spent about $500,000 fighting the law in courts, said Ravitej Singh Khalsa, a friend involved in the legal battle. They lost.
The state legislature regularly reaffirmed the 87-year-old law, even as late as July 2009 when Oregon passed a new religious-liberty law but specifically exempted the religious head-covering rule from its new protections.
When a SALDEF member working in Oregon became aware of the law, the group mounted an interfaith campaign to convince state legislatures to overturn the religious ban. The Department of Justice got involved.
“With strong leadership, especially from this community, the Sikh community, the (department’s) civil rights division notified the attorney general of Oregon that it was opening an investigation under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation to religious beliefs and practices,” said Samuel Bagenstos, principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, and keynote speaker. “Ultimately, the principle of religious freedom prevailed, and the Oregon governor and legislature acted to repeal the law this April.”
Three of the honorees played a pivotal role in advancing the repeal, Bagenstos said: Speaker of the Oregon House Dave Hunt was recognized for his role in moving thE repeal through the state legislature; Saba Ahmed, a law student, for her leadership role in the advocacy campaign; and Ravitej Singh Khalsa for fighting for a change in the law for more than 25 years. A fourth honoree, Ajeet Singh Matharu, a teacher, was posthumously recognized in part for testifying to Oregon legislators.
“Today, I’m here to assure you that as the Sikh American community, as it continues to fight against forces of bigotry, fear and hate, you have the power of the United States government behind you and with you,” Bagenstos told nearly 200 Sikh dinner guests. He was a last-minute replacement for the original keynote speaker, Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general, who had to attend a funeral.
SALDEF continues to partner with the justice department on other civil rights issues.
The department is currently suing the New York City transit authority for prohibiting Muslim women from wearing headscarves and Sikh men from wearing turbans while working in positions requiring uniforms. SALDEF became involved in this issue in 2004 when Kevin Herrington, a Sikh subway operator, was reassigned to another job because his dastaar violated its no-hats policy.
“Such policies in the workplace deny the individual’s right to adhere to the requirements of their faith,” Bagenstos said. “And they are illegal.”
In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, SALDEF affiliates aided the justice department’s efforts to improve cross-cultural awareness and diversity training. They improved the sheriff’s office policy and procedures in responding to allegations of discrimination.
“They (SALDEF) provide expertise that we simply couldn’t bring to the table ourselves,” Bagenstos said. “I view this kind of collaboration as vital to our success.”
Also in Texas, SALDEF lobbied to overturn last week a school policy that required short hair and no hats for its students. The Brazosport Independent School District denied enrollment last year to a fourth-grader who wears a patkaa.
“We continue to hear about Sikh students harassed in schools where there is an inadequate response by the school,” Bagenstos said. “This is a very important and emerging issue. We encourage you to report such incidents to us and we are taking aggressive action about them.
“Working together… we can overcome all of the challenges we face now.
CURRENT AND FUTURE
Among SALDEF’s other accomplishments is approval from the Georgia Department of Driver Services of the wearing of patkaas and dastaars for license photos. The problem came to light when a 15-year-old was asked to removed his patkaa for the photo, and his father was asked the same of his dastaar when went to renew his license. The department issued an apology and allowed SALDEF to train its staff. Law enforcement agencies and the Transportation Safety Administration also have adopted these training materials. Similar photo policies have also been overturned in Oklahoma, Minnesota, Michigan, Nevada and California.
In Washington, SALDEF worked with the police department to initiate the first open invitation to Sikhs to serve as police officers. It’s the first major metropolitan police department to welcome Sikhs.
“This is significant because just eight years ago our community was suing for the right to be a traffic cop in the city of New York,” said Jasjit Singh, associate executive director. It serves as an “excellent precedent.” California had previously offered seven positions for Sikh officers.
SALDEF is finding more novel ways to be proactive.
“We’re going to address issues before they come up,” Jasjit Singh added. “Where can we frame the story, where we can make sure there are positive mentions of Sikhs?”
Last year, SALDEF members discussed Sikh American challenges on RT, an international English-language news channel broadcast to more than 200 million viewers in 100 countries, on five continents, throughout the world. They have also worked with National Public Radio, FOX, Warner Brothers and NBC Universal.
This summer, the group analyzed Facebook and found 45 anti-Sikh and anti-turban pages. Facebook is the world’s most popular social networking Web site, which claims to have more than 500 million active users.
These kinds of pages are “forums for hate speech and misconceptions,” Jasjit Singh said. On one there are pictures of Sikh Gurus and weapons of terrorism, on another there are pictures of Sikh historical figures and Osama Bin Laden.
“These are not only pages that are undermining our educational efforts, they also put our community in harms way. It convinces people that this must be true.”