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March 27, 2013

Leading Sikh activist discusses U.S. religious liberty

NORMAN — Rajdeep Singh, director of Law and Policy for the Sikh Coalition in Washington, D.C., was the guest of the OU Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage at a casual luncheon Tuesday, providing candid insight on domestic issues facing religious minorities and how discrimination is an inherently interfaith problem.

Beginning with a brief historical summary of the Sikh religion’s establishment and the struggles of Sikh Americans through the 20th century, Singh elaborated on Sikh’s unique concurrence with Constitutional religious liberty.

“There are loopholes in federal law that allow bigoted laws to pass,” Singh said. “As of the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, as long as a law is not intentionally targeted at a particular religious group or as long as it’s facially neutral, it can withstand Constitutional muster.”

Singh cited the Oklahoma legislature’s 2009 HB 1645 — prohibiting all head scarves and other coverings, including the Muslim hijab or Sikh turban, in driver’s license photos — as a prime example.

“On its face, the bill didn’t target Sikhs, Jews or Muslims, and in most states it would pass Constitutionally. Luckily, in Oklahoma it did not pass the Senate,” Singh said. “There are places in this country where it could potentially be illegal to be a Sikh, Muslim or Jew, and as an American, that’s disheartening.”

Though job discrimination and unfavorable court rulings have been a problem for Sikhs throughout the 20th century, Singh called the Sept. 11 attacks a “turning point” for Sikh advocacy and religious prejudice.

“The Sikh Coalition was founded in the days after 9/11 and in the first three months documented over 300 backlash incidents involving Sikhs such as job discrimination, bullying, profiling and violence. American newspapers documented more than 40 hate crimes in the first week after 9/11 — it gives you a sense of the crisis Sikhs were facing at that time,” Singh said.

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