Beyond a lifetime, still inspiring

August 16, 2010

~ By Sally Hartman, Sikh Coalition Legal Fellow

As my legal internship with the Sikh Coalition comes to a close, I have begun to reflect on my experience over the course of the past three months.  I feel fortunate that my time with the Coalition has been characterized by a unique blend of a legal and cultural education.  By getting to know the Coalition staff and hearing stories of victories in the community, I have come to realize the extent to which their lives truly embody the spirit of heartfelt advocacy.

Air Marshal Dr. Puran Singh Bajwa

I am mindful that none of this would have been possible without the generous support of the family of Dr. Puran Singh Bajwa.  Through honoring the memory of Dr. Bajwa, they have opened the door for countless other future attorneys to explore the rewarding and uplifting field of Civil Rights law.  This opportunity is consistent with the essence of Dr. Bajwa’s life.

As an Air Marshal in the Indian Army, Dr. Bajwa was noted throughout his career for his dignity and his proud practice of the Sikh faith, serving as an inspiration to many generations of military personnel who followed him. In his retirement, the advanced study and practice of Sikhism and teaching it to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren was Dr. Bajwa’s chief pursuit in life. As a physician, highly decorated military officer, and community leader, Dr. Bajwa literally touched and made a lasting impact on tens of thousands of lives.

I am hopeful that my work this summer has, in some small way, been able to mimic the incredible dedication that characterized Dr. Bajwa’s life.  I have been honored to work alongside our staff attorneys to educate both the government and private-sector employers as to the Civil Rights of Sikh men and woman who are being discriminated against.  By familiarizing myself with the relevant legal context, honing my research skills, and drafting advocacy letters, I truly feel that I have taken a step forward in a promising direction.  I hope to continue this journey as I go forward in my education, and make Civil Rights Law a central part of my future practice.

Thank you once again to the family of Dr. Bajwa.  In helping make possible my experience this summer, you have honored his memory, established a meaningful opportunity for future lawyers, and bestowed a wonderful gift on the Sikh community.


Court Invalidates School District Restrictions on Hair Length

July 15, 2010

Sikh students in Texas can confidently practice their faith in schools without interference by their school districts due to a recent federal court decision upholding religious freedom in public schools.  In A.A. v. Needville Independent School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that a school district violated a Native American kindergartener’s religious rights under Texas state law through its grooming policy.  The policy required boys to keep their hair short enough so that it does not touch their ears or the tops of their collars.  This policy conflicted with the child’s Native American religious belief to keep his hair unshorn and in a braid.  Because the school district’s reasons for the policy did not justify the burden on the child’s fundamental right to practice his faith freely, the court held that the school violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

This decision directly impacts the Sikh community in Texas and nationwide.  Sikhs in Texas can freely practice their faith in schools without school district interference.  Sikhs nationwide now have strong precedent to support their argument for religious freedom if they face discrimination because of their Sikh identity.  Recognizing the impact on the Sikh community of the outcome of this decision, the Sikh Coalition and United Sikhs, along with other religious rights organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of the Native American child.  The Sikh Coalition applauds the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for upholding religious freedom as envisioned in the U.S. Constitution and Texas state law.

-Manleen Singh, Kaye Scholer Public Interest Associate

Coalition Receives Award from North American South Asian Bar Association

July 1, 2010

The Sikh Coalition received the 2010 Public Service Achievement Award from the North American South Asian Bar Association (NASABA) during its annual convention in Boston, from June 25 to June 27. The award is meant to recognize public interest organizations that excel in serving the South Asian community in North America.

Sa’adiyah Masoud, Vice-President of the South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston presented the award to us on behalf of NASABA.  Her remarks cited the Coalition’s work to: obtain a historic accommodations for two Sikh Army doctors; repeal a Oregon law that prevented Sikhs from serving as public schools teachers; and combat discrimination in the workplace as some of the reasons for the award.

This is the second year in a row NASABA has been good enough to honor the Coalition. Last year I was honored to receive NASABA’s Public Interest Achievement Award for my work with the Coalition.

The Coalition thanks NASABA for its leadership and partnership. We truly value its leadership of the South Asian bar in North America.

EEOC settles case protecting Sikh employee’s right to wear kirpan at work

June 10, 2010

As many of you know, the Sikh Coalition is litigating a case against the federal government for firing a government employee because she refused to remove her kirpan at work.

In a bit of good news, just this week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in San Francisco settled the employment discrimination case of a Sikh woman who wanted to carry her kirpan in the workplace.  This is a great victory for the Sikh community, and hopefully this decision bodes well for our pending case.

The EEOC press release is below.

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Bigotry in all the Wrong Places?

February 11, 2010

You may be surprised by who said this last week at a hearing of the Oregon House Education Committee (brace yourself):

“About every other year a new private school opens in Oregon,” GUESS WHO testified. Christian parents “have created those private Christian schools largely because they feel that the public school system is hostile to their religious beliefs. Those parents and people like them are going to feel even more so if their first-graders were being taught by Muslim women in burkas and Sikh teachers in turbans… I look forward to the day when the orthodox Jewish parent welcomes the fact that his 6-year-old daughter is going to be a captive audience in the Muslim teacher’s or the Wiccan teacher’s classroom for 180 days a year.” Read the rest of this entry »

New Video: From the Classroom to the Capitol

August 24, 2009

Filmmaker Kevin Lee just finished a new short documentary film entitled From the Classroom to the Capitol: The Sikh Coalition. The film was screened for the first time on August 8, 2009 at the Sikh Coalition’s first ever gala in New York City.

Kevin Lee is a an award-winning, New York-based filmmaker who also directed the films Warrior Saints and Dastaar: Defending Sikh Identity. This new documentary, From the Classroom to the Capitol, includes interviews with community members who have experienced discrimination or hate violence as well as Sikh Coalition staff members and interns who provide a behind the scenes glimpse at the Sikh Civil Rights movement in the United States.

We are grateful for Kevin’s commitment to documenting these stories which are so important to Sikhs in the U.S. and around the world.

UVA Stands Up for Sikh Rights

April 22, 2009

I love hearing stories about grassroots efforts by individuals to stand up for the civil rights of themselves and others. After an exhausting week in DC knocking on the doors of Congress asking for the right for Sikhs to serve in the US Army, I was pleased to hear about resolution of an incident in Charlottesville, VA in which a Sikh UVA student was barred from entering a local restaurant because of his turban.

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