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Liberty Is Elusive for Sikh Americans

December 23, 2011 | By

Rajdeep Singh*

For religious minorities in the United States, the promise of religious freedom remains unfulfilled. Sikh Americans, in particular, continue to face relentless challenges in the post-9/11 environment. Worse still, American law affords inadequate protection to Sikhs against religious discrimination and, in some cases, reflects deep-seated stereotypes about American identity.

The Sikh religion was founded in South Asia over five centuries ago and is currently the fifth-largest world religion, with approximately 25 million adherents throughout the world. Sikhs are distinguished by visible religious articles, including uncut hair, which Sikh males are required to keep covered with a turban and which Sikh females have the option of covering with a turban. Although the Sikh turban signifies a commitment to upholding freedom, justice and dignity for all people, it is often ignorantly associated with foreign terrorists, some of whom also wear turbans and many of whom have received copious publicity in our mainstream media. Consequently, Sikhs in the United States are stereotyped because of their appearance and subjected to hate crimes, workplace discrimination, school bullying, racial profiling, and other deprivations of civil rights.

Many of these challenges are compounded by loopholes in federal law that make Sikhs especially vulnerable to discrimination. For example, according to some interpretations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may lawfully segregate Sikhs from customers in the name of corporate image policies, reflecting biases about what American workers should look like. According to U.S. military regulations, religiously observant individuals with uncut hair (including Muslims, Sikhs and Jews) may not presumptively serve in the U.S. armed forces, even if their neatly-groomed hair does not pose a safety risk. In many states, if a state legislature passes a law prohibiting all headcoverings in driver’s license photos, Sikhs may have no legal recourse under the First Amendment and would be forced to choose between their religious observance and the ability to obtain a valid identification photograph, without which travel and economic transactions become exceedingly difficult.

Until Sikhs and the Sikh identity are considered an integral part of the American fabric by opinion-shapers and decision-makers in all spheres of American life, Sikhs will continue to encounter existential threats to their religious freedom.

* Author is the director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition.

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