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Arizona Corrections Officer Gets Beard and Kara Accommodation

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Monday, February 18, 2013 | 11:13 pm

Ikhbinder Singh Bassin, an Arizona state corrections officer, fought for accommodations to keep his unshorn beard and wear his kara while on the job at a maximum-security prison.

Photo Source: Sikh Coalition

Ikhbinder Singh Bassin, a hospital lab technician from India, could not do better than working at a 7/11 when he immigrated to Arizona in 1999.

He was alone and working 12 hours a day. Then an opportunity arose with the Arizona Department of Corrections in 2003. The department needed prison guards and was willing to provide incentives such as housing, financial assistance, and even a religious accommodation for Ikhbinder Singh’s long beard so he could finish the training process, he said.

Ikhbinder Singh moved from Phoenix to Florence where he began his job at the Arizona State Prison Complex- Eyman, a maximum-security prison. He had a mobile home and was financially satisfied, he said. His wife came three years later, and the couple bought a home.

“This small town has given me a lot,” Ikhbinder Singh told SikhNN. “We came to know everybody.”

His job went smoothly for nearly 10 years. But late last December an audit of the department’s personnel revealed that he was not compliant with its regulations for beards and bracelets. According to its policy, corrections officers cannot grow beards longer than half an inch or wear bracelets that are not medically necessary.

The department gave him 10 days to comply or lose his job.

When he received the waiver for the training, he was told to get another waiver once he knew which corrections facility was going to hire him.

“After that (training), I got so busy, it got out of my head, and no one asked,” he said.

“I did not want to lose my faith.”

The Eyman facility offered less-paying, non-uniform positions. Ikhbinder Singh began to wonder if he was going to lose his retirement plan, a benefit that was to begin in six months. Perhaps he would have to move his family, which now included a 5-year-old son.

With diminishing options, Ikhbinder Singh contacted the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based advocacy group. The coalition made a formal request to the department to grant a waiver for the Sikh articles of faith. The long beard and kara had not posed any undue hardship, the coalition explained. The department refused and ordered Ikhbinder Singh to comply by Jan. 31.

It wasn’t until the coalition “informed them of all the case law and threatened to sue” that the (department) finally “buckled,” said Gurjot Kaur, staff attorney.

The free exercise clause of the First Amendment provides that when a secular exemption is given, the same exemption must also be allowed for a religious circumstance unless a compelling reason is provided. In this case, the department allows female corrections officers to keep long hair, and it allows medical bracelets, she said.

The coalition relied on an arsenal of legal pressure. It first helped Ikhbinder Singh file a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It then sought intervention from the Department of Justice, Governor Janice Brewer, Rep. Barbara McGuire (D-District 23), the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League, the Arizona Interfaith Movement, and local Sikhs.

The department granted the accommodation on Jan. 31.

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