California’s Workplace Religion Freedom Act rights the wrongs faced by our parents

When my Sikh father immigrated to America in 1970 to practice architecture, employers told him that he could have a job only if he removed his turban and shaved his beard. He refused to abandon his faith and took his first job as an office boy, sharpening pencils and making coffee for his fellow architects. For decades, Sikh fathers like mine and countless religious minorities around the nation have been offered a similarly false choice between religious freedom and self-fulfillment in their chosen careers.

— In the Washington Post, the Sikh Coalition’s Rajdeep Singh, Director of Law and Policy, discusses the recent signing into law of California’s Workplace Religious Freedom Act (AB1964). This law, strengthening protections against religious discrimination in the workplace, goes into effect in the state at the beginning of 2013.

My own father had a similar experience as a high school teacher, which he shared in our StoryCorps interview that was broadcast on National Public Radio in August:

“When I came in 1966, nobody knew about who a Sikh was,” Surinder tells Rupinder. “For them, I came out as if from a zoo or a museum. I looked so different.”

Surinder’s appearance — namely, his turban — became an issue while he was working as a school teacher in Canada. “Once when I was desperately needing a job, they had hired me. But after two, three days, I was told that, ‘Mr. Singh, you have to remove your turban … you have to look like us.’

“I said, “Mr … I won’t do it.’ And I gave up the job right away. He was very surprised, but I was not willing to give in,” Surinder says.

It is a shared experience among many Sikhs who immigrated to the west, and after a generation, it has finally been ensured — in California for now, at least — that Sikhs won’t suffer such discrimination again..


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