World Views
5:02 pm
Wed July 10, 2013

For Sikh Civil Rights Attorney, Sometimes The Status Quo Is Enough

Sikhs mourn the victims of the August 5, 2012 shooting at the temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin during a vigil in Union Square on the night of August 8, 2012.
Credit Henry Gass / Flickr Creative Commons

Nearly a year ago, a white supremacist killed six people and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek.

The August 5, 2012 attack in Wisconsin was one of several incidents in the past decade against members of the South Asian religion.

“Unfortunately, in the post-9/11 environment, the prevailing stereotype is that if somebody wears a turban, they're affiliated with al-Qaeda,” says Rajdeep Singh, the Washington, D.C. Director of Law and Policy for the New York City-based Sikh Coalition. “And I think this has explained a lot of the violence and bigotry that is too-often directed at Sikhs.”

In 2009 the Sikh Coalition worked to stop Oklahoma legislation from advancing that would have prohibited motorists from wearing head scarves or other coverings in their driver’s license photos.

House Bill 1645 passed that chamber by a vote of 88-8, but failed in the Senate when the upper chamber’s author, State Sen. Roger Ballenger (D-Okmulgee), took his name off the legislation.

The Oklahoman’s Michael McNutt reports the measure started out after the Department of Public Safety requested clarification on the law’s language.

"In talking with DPS, they didn't request the amendment and they do not have a problem with the present law on facial identification on driver's license photographs," said Ballenger, D-Okmulgee. "It appears to be a solution looking for a problem." 

“Now for Sikhs, who are religiously required to wear turbans and observant Jews who are religiously required to wear head-coverings, this poses obvious problems,” Singh says. “A lot of our work is the nature of prevention. It's not just a matter of passing new laws which expand civil rights. Sometimes we're fighting to hold on to what we've got.”

Members of the Queens, New York Sikh community founded the Coalition in the first few days after 9/11. Rajdeep Singh says they have made “steady-but-substantial” gains in expanding civil rights gains through both the court system and in state legislatures.

“For example, in California last year we spearheaded the passage of a bill called AB 1964,” Singh says. “[It] provides workers in California with the nation's strongest protections against religious discrimination.”

Singh says one of the main pillars of the Sikh religion is that all human beings are created equal in God’s eyes regardless of their race, religion, and gender. He says he’s proud that Sikh-Americans can champion the cause of civil rights on behalf of other people.

“The U.S. Constitution, our constitutional heritage, the Bill of Rights, they're very resilient things, very durable and very adaptable,” Singh says. “It's very much one of these ‘only in America’ phenomena.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On working with other religious and minority groups

There's strength in numbers. Given that the Sikh population in the United States may be no more than half a million, we absolutely need to work with other communities. Not just within the interfaith community, but outside as well. So in the context of school bullying, for example, we've partnered very strongly with the LGBT community on efforts to pass more robust laws and regulations against school bullying. Our organizational mission is to promote and protect human and civil rights for all people, regardless of who they are. Essentially what we're trying to do is vindicate the right of people to be who they are, regardless of their background.

On “loopholes” in federal civil rights legislation

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which governs workplace discrimination, has been misinterpreted in our view in recent years in ways that allow employers to segregate visibly religious employees like Sikhs and Muslims and observant Jews from customers in the name of corporate image. So essentially what you have is a situation where American courts in the 21st Century are upholding, in a way, the separate-but-equal doctrine in a way that says to employers, "You know what? You can tell a Sikh or a Muslim to work in the basement or the back room where they can't be seen by the public in the name of a corporate image policy." That's allowed, according to some courts, by Title VII which is part of the seminal civil rights legislation of 1964.

On why the Sikh Coalition prefers to effect change using legislatures rather than the court system

We find it's much more efficient and cost-effective by passing laws in the first instance rather than having to litigate things out over the course of years, which could be a very costly process. We have filed suit on behalf of a number of Sikhs in the context mostly of job discrimination. We also had a client who had experienced school bullying, which was persistent and wasn't being remedied by the relevant school. But for the most part we focus our efforts on passing laws in the legislatures that are more protective of civil rights than the status quo.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Rajdeep Singh, welcome to World Views.

RAJDEEP SINGH: Thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: So as I understand it, the Sikh religion is the fifth-largest religion in the world with some 25 million followers, is that correct? But for our listeners who may not be familiar with the religion, can you speak a little bit about the faith and its practitioners and what part of the world you find the religion predominantly?

SINGH: Yes. The Sikh religion was founded over 500 years ago in the Punjab region of South Asia by Guru Nanak. And it was developed over the course of about two centuries by ten gurus who lived between 1469 and 1708. The main pillars of the Sikh religion are that there is one god, and that all human beings are created equal regardless of their race, religion, and gender.

GRILLOT: So, in terms of your work, you work as an advocate for Sikh civil rights in the United States, actually. So what are the challenges that you see? What are some of the issues of religious freedom, religious liberty, what are some of the concerns that you deal with as an advocate for the religion?

SINGH: Yes, the Sikh Coalition, which is the organization that I work for, is the largest Sikh-American civil rights organization in the United States. We were founded in the days after the 9/11 attacks in the context of a torrent of hate crimes and other discrimination incidents involving Sikhs. Unfortunately, in the post-9/11 environment, the prevailing stereotype is that if somebody wears a turban, they're affiliated with al-Qaeda. And I think this has explained a lot of the violence and bigotry that is too-often directed at Sikhs.

GRILLOT: So what are some of the things that you do specifically to advocate for the religion? Are you working through the court system? Is it public relations? Is it a little bit of everything? What are some of the things that you do?

SINGH: We take an interdisciplinary approach. We have a litigation program, so we do often have occasion to file suit in courts to vindicate civil rights of people who've experienced job discrimination, for example. We pursue legislative advocacy in Congress and develop relationships with government agencies at the federal, state and local levels to address problems like school bullying and hate crimes and racial and religious profiling. We also do a lot of education work. So we go into public schools and try to promote diversity appreciation programs in the context of anti-bullying efforts.

GRILLOT: Do you feel like this advocacy is working? You mentioned that this was largely in response after 9/11, where as you said, those who would be seen out in public with a turban would be discriminated against. There's a tremendous amount of bias, stereotyping. We don't tend to think of the things that then follow - job discrimination as you mentioned, profiling on the streets and in daily life. So do you think some of this work that you’re doing - the educational campaigns, the awareness, working through the court system - are you seeing an improvement in the public's response to the Sikh religion?

SINGH: We've some slow improvement, and we've made some steady-but-substantial progress in the area of expanding civil rights through the courts and also the legislative process. For example, in California last year we spearheaded the passage of a bill called AB 1964 which provides workers in California with the nation's strongest protections against religious discrimination. On the other hand, there have been setbacks. As you know, last August in Oak Creek, Wisconsin six Sikhs were massacred at a Sikh gurudwara, or place of worship. It was one of the most lethal attacks on an American place of worship since the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. So we've made some gains, but at the same time there have been setbacks, and many of the problems that we faced in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks haven't abated.

GRILLOT: Is this something that you face that largely in the United States, or is this a global phenomenon? Are you working at all to address some of these religious freedom issues around the world?

SINGH: The Sikh Coalition currently focuses almost exclusively on domestic civil rights issues. But Sikhs throughout the world have faced, and continue to face, human rights challenges. For example, in France Sikhs are not permitted to wear their turbans, which are religiously required, in the public schools. So Sikh parents are not permitted to send their kids to French public schools, which is problematic for a variety of reasons. It sort of cuts against integration of Sikhs into French society.

GRILLOT: This is true in France of other things as well. The hijab and other religious articles that are banned.

SINGH: That is correct.

GRILLOT: So your coalition then works to do what in that case?

SINGH: Well, in 2004 when the ban was imposed on various religious communities in France the Sikh Coalition did persuade several dozen members of Congress to speak out and write to the government of France and repudiate them for doing this. But unfortunately, a lot of those problems are still festering. Sikhs have faced human rights challenges in India as well in the last two or three decades. A lot of those underlying challenges haven't been addressed, but during the 80s and 90s in particular there were very serious, severe human rights violations implicating Sikhs, which are well-documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and so forth.

GRILLOT: So given that your focus is on religious freedom - you are working for a coalition that's focusing on the Sikh religion - have you found allies in terms of working with other religious groups, or other advocacy groups that are also working on issues of religious freedom and liberty?

SINGH: Yes, we have found allies, and we believe that interfaith coalition building is an integral part of our work. There's strength in numbers. Given that the Sikh population in the United States may be no more than half a million, we absolutely need to work with other communities. Not just within the interfaith community, but outside as well. So in the context of school bullying, for example, we've partnered very strongly with the LGBT community on efforts to pass more robust laws and regulations against school bullying.

GRILLOT: So just working with other groups to share lessons or learn lessons about prejudice and hatred and try to prevent these types of activities regardless of whether its religion or sexual orientation. These are the kinds of groups that you're looking to work with.

SINGH: Yeah, and we regard ourselves as a civil rights organization. Our organizational mission is to promote and protect human and civil rights for all people, regardless of who they are. Essentially what we're trying to do is vindicate the right of people to be who they are, regardless of their background.

GRILLOT: And yet we live in a society where we have civil rights legislation. We have, or at least we like to think that we have, a fairly open-minded society in this regard, and we still have work to do. It sounds like you're still seeing that we have freedoms and liberties that need to be protected when it comes to civil rights.

SINGH: And it's important to note that the legislation that we have is laden with loopholes. I'll give you one example. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which governs workplace discrimination, has been misinterpreted in our view in recent years in ways that allow employers to segregate visibly religious employees like Sikhs and Muslims and observant Jews from customers in the name of corporate image. So essentially what you have is a situation where American courts in the 21st Century are upholding, in a way, the separate-but-equal doctrine in a way that says to employers, "You know what? You can tell a Sikh or a Muslim to work in the basement or the back room where they can't be seen by the public in the name of a corporate image policy." That's allowed, according to some courts, by Title VII which is part of the seminal civil rights legislation of 1964. So yes, we do have good civil rights legislation at the federal, state and local levels, but there are loopholes that need to be plugged. That's where we spend a lot of time doing our work.

GRILLOT: Through the judicial system primarily? Are these kinds of cases that you're bringing up before appeals courts? Have you had anything actually addressed at this level, at the Supreme Court, perhaps?

SINGH: We've so far operated mostly in the context of the legislatures. We find it's much more efficient and cost-effective to close loopholes by passing laws in the first instance rather than having to litigate things out over the course of years, which could be a very costly process. We have filed suit on behalf of a number of Sikhs in the context mostly of job discrimination. We also had a client who had experienced school bullying, which was persistent and wasn't being remedied by the relevant school. But for the most part we focus our efforts on passing laws in the legislatures that are more protective of civil rights than the status quo.

GRILLOT: So are you doing this state-by-state? Because I noticed that you worked successfully to pass - and you mentioned the California law, but you've also worked in Oregon and other places where you've had some changes in civil rights legislation there - are you largely doing this at the state level or are you working at all national Congress? I'm curious because we have this certain perception of the U.S. Congress, so is this something that you have ears in Congress that are listening to these kinds of issues today?

SINGH: We operate on all fronts. So we do pursue legislative advocacy at the state and local levels, but also in Congress. Things tend to move glacially anyway in Congress, but it's important always to maintain and sustain those relationships because when you achieve a critical mass, it is possible then to pass federal legislation. That obviously would create a benchmark for the entire country. I should tell you a little bit about some of the work that we've done at the state level. In 2009 we did some work in Oklahoma. There was a bill introduced at that time that would've prohibited individuals from wearing religious head-coverings in drivers' license photos. It passed out of the House of Representative in Oklahoma at the time by a vote of 88-8. But the problem was it was motivated, in our view, substantially by anti-Muslim bias. It was designed to prevent Muslims from wearing head-coverings in drivers' license photos. Now for Sikhs, who are religiously required to wear turbans and observant Jews who are religiously required to wear head-coverings, this poses obvious problems. So fortunately we were able to stop that bill from progressing, but a lot of our work is the nature of prevention. It's not just a matter of passing new laws which expand civil rights. Sometimes we're fighting to hold on to what we've got.

GRILLOT: To keep new laws from being passed that would be restrictive. So along those lines here in Oklahoma I'm sure you're probably aware there was a law passed not too long ago about Sharia law. Again, focused on a particular religion and similar to the one that you prevented coming through, this is one that...

SINGH: And we're confident that that law will be, if it hasn't already been struck down, is unconstitutional. And I should also note that we really do underscore the importance of interfaith coalition building. We're always very eager to stand up for the rights of our brothers and sisters in the Muslim-American community, and all communities, frankly. Because if the civil rights, the human rights in one community are compromised then all of us lose. So all of us have a stake in making sure that we preserve the integrity of our civil rights laws, and also expand the scope of protections which are afforded to people in this country.

GRILLOT: But beyond this country though, this approach that your taking - the legislative process. It sounds like you're covering your bases in the sense that you're fighting this fight at all angles, but that you're working largely through the legislative process. Is this a strategy that you can use around the world? In France, for example. You mentioned the head-coverings in France and laws about public school there. Do you work through the legislative process in France? Or what about India? You mentioned India as well. Is this something that you can translate from one country to another?

SINGH: It is something that can be translated from one country to another, but it's very important to focus on the United States in making sure that we as a nation have the most robust civil rights and human rights protections anywhere in the world.

GRILLOT: The U.S. sets the example.

SINGH: Exactly.

GRILLOT: Is this what you're saying? That the U.S. sets the example for the rest of the world to follow?

SINGH: This is benchmarking. This is benchmarking. If we can serve as role models for the rest of the world by having the most rights-protective laws anywhere in the world, that will have, I think, a positive ripple effects on the rest of the world. And at the very least give us some leverage when we pursue advocacy in other countries. We can point to the United States and say, "Look, here you have an example of a pluralistic society which promotes and protects religious freedom for all people, and which is functional." That's what we're striving for in this country. But it is not something we could take for granted. As you pointed out there have been some bigoted laws passed in this country targeted at Muslims. Sikhs have been subjected to violence and discrimination - stereotyping even by policymakers. So charity begins at home. So we have to sort-of shore up the home front. But I can tell you that the U.S. Constitution, our constitutional heritage, the Bill of Rights, they're very resilient things. Very durable, and very adaptable. I'm very proud that Sikh-Americans can champion the cause of civil rights on behalf of other people. It's very much one of these "only in America" phenomena. It's really a beautiful thing. I'm confident that we'll continue to make progress in this country. At the same time, I think it's very important for all of us to realize that we cannot take any of our civil rights for granted. That we always have to be vigilant and make sure that we preserve and protect the integrity of our constitution.

GRILLOT: Well, Rajdeep Singh, thank you so much for joining us on World Views today.

SINGH: Thanks for having me.

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