The Norman Transcript

March 27, 2013

Leading Sikh activist discusses U.S. religious liberty

By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript

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.

Though immediate reaction to 9/11 has subsided, the climate has retained a distinct essence of prejudice and ostracization, he said.

“There’s a need, it seems, to overtly lash out against Muslims, and in a context where Sikhs, Arabs and South Asians are regarded generically as Muslim or ‘the other,’ this creates a very dangerous situation for us,” Singh said. “That’s why we spend a great deal of time publicly denouncing efforts to suppress the religious rights of Muslims. As Americans we feel it’s our obligation because if they lose, we lose.”

In spite of overwhelming minority and prevailing cultural and legal discrimination, the Sikh Coalition has successfully overturned some states’ workplace-related legislation that negatively affects individuals who wear religious articles of clothing, like Sikhs.

Most notable among these successes was the Sikh Coalition’s central role in overturning a long-standing Oregon law prohibiting public school teachers from wearing religious articles of clothing in school.

In spite of opposition from the state and the American Civil Liberties Union — based upon a rationale that religious garb could be subversive proselytizing and therefore a violation of church and state separation — the bill was ultimately overturned in 2010.

“The Oregon Supreme Court — offensively I think — suggested it would be OK to wear turbans as part of a seasonal costume or school production. So that gives you a sense of the currency or staying power of bias and prejudice,” Singh said. “Civil rights and human rights are not settled issues in this country. There are still issues that affect millions of people in this country and prevent them from being who they are.

“So, when you have legislators passing laws that attempt to prohibit individuals from expressing themselves as they are in a driver’s license photo, you should speak up as though you personally are being targeted, because that’s what it means to be an American — we’re bound together by values that transcend individual religious differences and we can all coalesce around values that are shared and not specific to particular traditions.”

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