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Civil Rights Groups Ask California to Allow Prison Guards With Beards

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Friday, January 28, 2011 | 03:11 pm

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Photo Source: by Fiona Aboud

Trilochan Singh and his wife Swarn pose in front of their Folsom, California home. Attorney General Kamala Harris submitted in court that Trilochan Singh cannot work as a prison guard if he keeps his religiously mandated beard. No exceptions.

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Photo Source: by Fiona Aboud

Trilochan Singh and his wife Swarn pose in front of their Folsom, California home. Attorney General Kamala Harris submitted in court that Trilochan Singh cannot work as a prison guard if he keeps his religiously mandated beard. No exceptions.

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Photo Source: by Fiona Aboud

Trilochan Singh, now 64, has been fight the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for nearly six years for the right to work as a prison guard with his religiously mandated beard.

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Photo Source: by Fiona Aboud

Kamala Harris took the case on behalf of the corrections department, and on Jan. 6, 2011, three days after she was sworn into office, she filed statements in court arguing that religion could not trump regulations. Harris, an Indian American, is asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit at the next hearing on April 19.

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Photo Source: by Fiona Aboud

“How can someone die wearing a gas mask with the Army but not get a job with a state agency?”

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Civil rights groups this week urged California Attorney General Kamala Harris to reconsider her position in court of not accommodating a Sikh man who wanted to work as a prison guard with a beard, noting that the U.S. Army now has three Sikh soldiers that have successfully worn gas masks over their religiously-mandated unshorn beards.

Trilochan Singh Oberoi, a Folsom resident, spent nearly six years fighting the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, even after the State Personnel Board ruled that the department had discriminated against him.

“There is no question of safety, they are talking trash,” Trilochan Singh told SikhNN. “I was in the (Indian) navy for 26 years, and also was a ship’s captain for 10 years. I used masks in firefighting and underwater conditions. No water or smoke killed me.”

Since his first complaint in 2006, there has been a significant development with regard to wearing a gas mask over a beard. The U.S. Army has successfully tested gas masks on Sikh soldiers in the last two years. All three passed the test during basic training.

“How can someone die wearing a gas mask with the Army but not get a job with a state agency?” said Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, Trilochan Singh’s lawyer.

The attorney general’s office did not return several phoned and emailed requests for an interview. The corrections department said it had no comment because the case is under litigation.

The new attorney general took the case on behalf of the corrections department, and on Jan. 6, 2011, three days after she was sworn into office, she filed statements in Sacramento Superior Court arguing that religion could not trump regulations. Harris, an Indian American, is asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit at the next hearing on April 19.

The attorney general can refuse to represent a state agency if she reasoned that its position was not legal or ethical, said Harmeet Kaur, also an attorney with the Sikh Coalition. The governor also has the right to order the corrections department to comply.

The coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and four Asian and Muslim organizations also wrote a letter to Harris, and to Governor Jerry Brown this week asking him to protect the civil rights of state employees.

“We find the California attorney general’s adversarial posture in this case to be demeaning to religious minorities and utterly inconsistent with your own obligation to defend civil rights for all Californians,” the letter says. “…We respectfully urge you to use your authority to restore the civil rights of Mr. Oberoi without delay and send a clear message to all state agencies in California that unlawful discrimination will not be tolerated.”

According to court documents, Trilochan Singh applied in March 2005 for a position as corrections officer. It took more than a year for him to come to the last of many application requirements: the gas-mask fit test. When he appeared for the test, he was asked to shave off his beard. He refused. Explaining that his beard was religiously mandated or that he had previously worn respirators and gas masks did not help.

According to documents that Harris submitted in court, several corrections department employees testified that the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration required the gas-mask fit test, and that it was the department’s policy that all applicants appear beardless for the test. There were no exceptions.

The corrections department uses chemical agents to respond to alarms. Its officers use the MSA Advantage 1000, a full-face and tight-fitting mask that forms a seal around the wearer's mouth and nose.

An industry expert also testified that “an individual with a beard who rolled the beard up would not be able to safely wear a tight-fitting face piece.”

Yet the U.S. Army uses gas masks that look very similar, and Sikh soldiers have worn them under combat conditions.






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