The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) describes the mistreatment of Jagjeet Singh, a Sikh truck driver from California, by the state of Mississippi’s justice system. Police officers and the judge responsible for his case not only failed to recognize Sikh articles of faith, but also harassed and discriminated against him based on their ignorance of these articles. It began with the police officers who arrested Jagjeet Singh in January of this year after he experienced a flat tire while driving through the state:
Contending, wrongly, that his kirpan was illegal, the officers demanded that Mr. Singh remove it. When Mr. Singh explained that he was a Sikh and that the kirpan was a sacred religious article, the officers laughed at him and mocked his religious beliefs. One officer declared that all Sikhs are “depraved” and “terrorists.” They continued to taunt him, and forced Mr. Singh to circle his truck with his hands on his turban while they searched the vehicle. Finally, not content with this humiliation, they arrested him, claiming that Mr. Singh had refused to obey an officer’s lawful command.
As objectionable as the conduct of the police officers was — including the use of the racial epithet of “terrorist” — the harassment did not end there, as even the judge presiding over Jagjeet Singh’s case participated in the discrimination later in March. According to the ACLU:
When he returned to Mississippi on March 26, 2013, for his court date at the Pike County Justice Court, he once again suffered humiliation, harassment, and discrimination because of his religious beliefs. Waiting for his attorney in the back of the courtroom, he was stunned when four Highway Patrol officers approached him and ordered him to leave the courtroom. The officers stated that Judge Aubrey Rimes had ordered them to eject Mr. Singh from the courtroom because he did not like Mr. Singh’s turban. Moreover, they told Mr. Singh that Judge Rimes would punish him if he failed to remove his headdress.
When Mr. Singh’s attorney went to Judge Rimes’s chambers to inquire about the matter, he readily confirmed that he had expelled Mr. Singh from the courtroom because of his turban. He further stated that Mr. Singh would not be allowed to re-enter the courtroom unless he removed “that rag” from his head and threatened to call Mr. Singh last on the docket if he continued to wear the religious headdress.
The use of the word “rag” in reference to the Sikh turban is also common slur directed towards members of the Sikh faith (see here, here, and here for prominent instances of this epithet being used), adding significantly to the mistreatment handed to Jagjeet Singh by Mississippi’s legal system.
Reportedly, Jagjeet Singh not only won his court case, but the Pike County Board of Supervisors in Mississippi has also amended its policies and procedures to include a non-discrimination policy after civil rights organization United Sikhs filed a complaint with the Department of Justice. However, according to the ACLU, the matter has not yet been dropped:
The ACLU and United Sikhs also plan to file a complaint with the Mississippi Judicial Commission, asking officials to investigate Judge Rimes’s conduct and impose appropriate sanctions.
The letter sent today to [Mississippi Department of Transportation] officials demands that they provide public documents relating to Mr. Singh’s detainment and arrest and urges them to implement an ongoing training program to educate officers about their responsibility to treat every person with dignity and to remain respectful of religious diversity.
This incident follows a pattern of such instances where justices are unfamiliar with Sikh articles of faith, resulting in mistreatment of Sikhs in the courtroom. Last year, in Michigan, a judge ejected a Sikh from a courtroom after he refused to remove his “hat,” for which the judge would later apologize, and for which the county where the court was located would implement a non-discrimination policy. In 2007, a court in Georgia also banned a Sikh from entering into a court house unless he removed his turban. Justice denied is bad enough, but injustice conferred makes the situation even worse.