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U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office writes to Dept. of Corrections in Sikh Turban removal case

October 18, 2014 | By

New York, USA: Mr. Gurbhej Singh Sandhu, an elderly Sikh gentleman, had his religious freedom violated by the New York City Department of Correction (DOC). Mr.Sandhu visited Rikers Island Correctional Facility on numerous occasions since February 2012 to meet with his son, who was serving a sentence at the facility. Mr.Sandhu was made to remove his turban on every occasion he went to meet his son at Rikers Island, including on November 13, 2013. He explained to the security officers that the turban is an essential part of the Sikh identity and removing it is humiliating and a denigration of the Sikh faith. However, the security officers refused to listen to him and said he would be unable to see his son if he did not comply with their demands. Mr. Singh had no choice but to remove his turban and a security officer examined it by placing it on a table and squeezing it before it was given back to him. In addition to Rikers Island officers’ insulting treatment of Mr. Singh, their actions are in contravention of the facility’s policies and procedures, which expressly exempts religious head coverings from its general prohibition of wearing of hats and head coverings to visits in DOC facilities.

Gurbhej Singh Sandhu

Gurbhej Singh Sandhu

United Sikhs legal team sent a demand letter to the NYC DOC seeking an explanation and remedial measures for the mistreatment of this Sikh gentleman at Rikers Island, and also filed a complaint with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Commission who then directed the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. The U.S. Attorney’s office then took this matter within its purview, and wrote to NYC DOC seeking an explanation for their acts and alleged religious discrimination against Mr.Sandhu during his visits. The office asserted in its letter that the removal of Mr. Singh’s religious headwear potentially violates both Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the DOC dress code policy, as United Sikhs addressed.

In the letter sent by United Sikhs to DOC, Staff Attorney Manmeet Singh wrote, “The Sikh faith mandates the wearing of the turban at all times. Wearing the turban is being Sikh; it is not just an item of clothing, but it is the practice of the faith itself and is an inseparable part of the Sikh identity. A Sikh being forced to remove his turban is degrading, cruel, and an embarrassment. Government agencies recognize the importance of the Sikh turban and make accommodations so that Sikh individuals do not have to remove it. Although safety is an obvious priority for the DOC, the turban does not pose a physical threat, and there are other non-intrusive ways to examine the turban for contraband, such as a metal detector.”

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