The Sikh Coalition shared news today of a victory in a recent religious accommodation case in Arizona, in which a Sikh correctional officer employed by the Arizona Department of Corrections was threatened with dismissal unless he removed his articles of faith.
According to the Sikh Coalition, after 10 years of employment with the Department, Ikhbinder Singh Bassin was told in December that he would be terminated unless he shaved his beard and removed his kara (steel bracelet) within 10 days, despite that he had served almost a decade during his training and tenure to that point with these articles of faith intact, and that his religious practices were accommodated to date.
The ultimatum imposed by the Arizona Department of Corrections seemed arbitrary and was an about-face with respect to the Department’s history of accommodation of these articles. It was also inconsistent with similar accommodation offered to women in relation to long hair and accommodations made for medical wrist bracelets. Further, the decision was also inconsistent with state and federal civil rights law pertaining to religious freedom in the workplace.
The multi-pronged effort to achieve this accommodation involved local community members, other civil rights groups, and elected officials within Arizona’s state government (including the Governor). Faced with its own history, legislation, and public pressure, the Arizona Department of Corrections relented and made the accommodation.
The case is reminiscent of Trilochan Singh Oberoi’s employment discrimination case in California. In 2010, Trilochan Singh challenged California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for refusing to hire him as a corrections officer unless he shaved his beard and removed his turban. The case would be settled out of court as the CDCR offered Trilochan Singh a different job within the organization, but the Department would not change its discriminatory policy. The employment discrimination faced by Trilochan Singh was part of the motivation leading to the passage of California’s Workplace Religious Freedom Act last September. It was also announced last November that the US Department of Justice has begun an investigation of the CDCR in relation to this case.
Arizona’s recent history with Sikhs has been one of challenges and successes, as it was in Arizona that a Sikh named Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered in the first post-9/11 backlash only days after the attacks. In 2011, there was political movement to remove Balbir Singh’s name from Arizona’s 9/11 memorial, but the legislation was vetoed by the Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.
Thus, despite the Arizona Department of Corrections original action, it is reassuring to see that a Sikh’s religious freedom in Arizona was protected.