The Norman Transcript


March 27, 2013

Leading Sikh activist discusses U.S. religious liberty



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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