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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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Trilochan Singh tried many times to resolve the issue with the corrections department but to no avail.

“I got fed up making calls to the pre-employment office,” he said. “I finally gave up. They told me to write a letter.”

He wrote a letter to the department requesting an accommodation for his beard, and then spent the next nine months seeking a response.

“They ignored him and refused to hire him,” Harmeet Kaur said.

Meanwhile he found two jobs, working as an hourly employee at Wal-Mart, and as a substitute math teacher.

“I should be getting $7,000 to $8,000 per month with benefits and working 8 hours a day, not $2,300 from two jobs and working 12 hours a day,” he said in the phone interview.

In February 2007, Trilochan Singh filed a religious discrimination complaint with the State Personnel Board. In November 2008, the board ruled that the corrections department discriminated against Trilochan Singh and ordered it to consider reasonable alternative accommodations, to determine if it accommodated or currently accommodates other officers that wear beards, and if it can accommodate him in the same manner. The board also ordered the corrections department to expedite the pre-employment process for Trilochan Singh.

“Harmeet discussed with the (department) that he can apply for another job, other than a corrections officer,” Trilochan Singh said, referring to a desk job. “I find myself equally qualified and much more educated than their people.” He has a bachelor’s degree in physics, chemistry and math.

“Harmeet kept on taking but they were not responding.”

When she threatened a lawsuit, the department responded. In February 2009, the department’s lawyer told Trilochan Singh that he would have to again go through the application process because he re-applied for a job.

“Now two years had passed, the original verdict was in 2008, nothing happened,” Trilochan Singh said. “You have to stand in queue again, filling forms, waiting for a vacancy.

“You are not accommodating me at all.”

“Despite the court order, they told him to get in the back of the line… start from scratch,” Harmeet Kaur added. “They were not obeying the spirit of the court ruling. They were rude and obstructionist.”

In July 2009, Harmeet Kaur filed a lawsuit complaining that the department continued to refuse to explore alternative accommodations or expedite his pre-employment application process.

“I have lived an honest and clean life, seen half the world,” Trilochan Singh said. “I did not come here to make big career, I had worked for 36 years. I came here to the land of justice, to (eventually) retire here.

“But they have shattered my trust.”

Trilochan Singh, now 64, is asking for a jury trial. If he wins his case, the court could order the corrections department to make a public declaration that its policies, practices, procedures, conditions, and customs violated his First Amendment rights. The court also could order it to award back pay, front pay, hiring, benefits, seniority and punitive damages.

“They just don’t want to accommodate Sikhs,” Trilochan Singh said. “This is definitely a case of discrimination. My contention is I have wasted five or six years.”






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