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SALDEF Gala Highlights Civil Rights Champions and Accomplishments

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Monday, October 18, 2010 | 11:10 pm


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Jasjit Singh, associate executive director, with background photo of the Oregon governor signing a repeal of the ban on teachers wearing religious garb.

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Ravitej Singh Khalsa, at podium, received the Public Service Award and returned the favor by awarding Manjit Singh, SALDEF co-founder, far right, with a $5,000 award.

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Samuel Bagenstos, principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, and keynote speaker.

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Wade Henderson, CEO and president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a national coalition, received the Dorothy Heights Coalition Building Award.

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K.P. Singh, artist and activist, received the Bhagat Singh Thind Community Empowerment Award.

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Ajeet Singh Matharu's family accepts the Youth leadership Award on his behalf. An activist in the Jakara movement, a Sikh youth organization, a teacher who contributed to the Sojhi curriculum and an activist, passed away earlier this year at age 27.

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Founded in 1996 as a volunteer organization, SALDEF portrays itself as the oldest Sikh civil rights group in the United States. It’s focus on media analysis and education expanded in 2000 to include legal services. The advocacy group has a full-time staff in Washington and Southern California, which works on civil rights, legislative, employment and accommodation issues.

“SALDEF has always been sensitive to the needs of the Sikh American community and has risen to provide new services and resources consistently and effectively on a shoe-string budget,” said Manjit Singh, co-founder and chairman of the board.

It’s most significant accomplishment in the last year was the repeal of an Oregon law that banned teachers from wearing religious garb. Those involved in the repeal were among the honorees recognized Saturday night at the advocacy group’s annual gala in Washington.


An Oregon state statute that was originally crafted by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s to ban Catholic nuns from teaching in its public schools eventually also prevented Jews, Muslims and Sikhs from working as teachers. In the 1980s, a young teacher named Karta Kaur Khalsa lost her job when she refused to take off her dastaar. As a member of Sikh Dharma, founded by Yogi Harbhajan Singh Khalsa in Eugene, Oregon, the community spent about $500,000 fighting the law in courts, said Ravitej Singh Khalsa, a friend involved in the legal battle. They lost.

The state legislature regularly reaffirmed the 87-year-old law, even as late as July 2009 when Oregon passed a new religious-liberty law but specifically exempted the religious head-covering rule from its new protections.

When a SALDEF member working in Oregon became aware of the law, the group mounted an interfaith campaign to convince state legislatures to overturn the religious ban. The Department of Justice got involved.

“With strong leadership, especially from this community, the Sikh community, the (department’s) civil rights division notified the attorney general of Oregon that it was opening an investigation under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation to religious beliefs and practices,” said Samuel Bagenstos, principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, and keynote speaker. “Ultimately, the principle of religious freedom prevailed, and the Oregon governor and legislature acted to repeal the law this April.”

Three of the honorees played a pivotal role in advancing the repeal, Bagenstos said: Speaker of the Oregon House Dave Hunt was recognized for his role in moving thE repeal through the state legislature; Saba Ahmed, a law student, for her leadership role in the advocacy campaign; and Ravitej Singh Khalsa for fighting for a change in the law for more than 25 years. A fourth honoree, Ajeet Singh Matharu, a teacher, was posthumously recognized in part for testifying to Oregon legislators.

“Today, I’m here to assure you that as the Sikh American community, as it continues to fight against forces of bigotry, fear and hate, you have the power of the United States government behind you and with you,” Bagenstos told nearly 200 Sikh dinner guests. He was a last-minute replacement for the original keynote speaker, Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general, who had to attend a funeral.


SALDEF continues to partner with the justice department on other civil rights issues.

The department is currently suing the New York City transit authority for prohibiting Muslim women from wearing headscarves and Sikh men from wearing turbans while working in positions requiring uniforms. SALDEF became involved in this issue in 2004 when Kevin Herrington, a Sikh subway operator, was reassigned to another job because his dastaar violated its no-hats policy.

“Such policies in the workplace deny the individual’s right to adhere to the requirements of their faith,” Bagenstos said. “And they are illegal.”

In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, SALDEF affiliates aided the justice department’s efforts to improve cross-cultural awareness and diversity training. They improved the sheriff’s office policy and procedures in responding to allegations of discrimination.

“They (SALDEF) provide expertise that we simply couldn’t bring to the table ourselves,” Bagenstos said. “I view this kind of collaboration as vital to our success.”

Also in Texas, SALDEF lobbied to overturn last week a school policy that required short hair and no hats for its students. The Brazosport Independent School District denied enrollment last year to a fourth-grader who wears a patkaa.

“We continue to hear about Sikh students harassed in schools where there is an inadequate response by the school,” Bagenstos said. “This is a very important and emerging issue. We encourage you to report such incidents to us and we are taking aggressive action about them.

“Working together… we can overcome all of the challenges we face now.



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