Sikh driver arrested, charged with refusal to remove religious symbols

By Clarissa Hawes, Land Line staff writer | Wednesday, October 02, 2013

What started as a routine stop by a Mississippi Department of Transportation officer over a flat tire has turned into an ongoing nightmare for an owner-operator from California. He claims he was discriminated against because of his Sikh faith in two separate incidents while in that state.

On Jan. 16, Jagjeet Singh, 49, an owner-operator from California, was on his way to pick up a load of chicken from McComb, Miss., which was headed for Texas, when he was initially stopped by a DOT officer for a flat tire on his trailer.

Photo: United Sikhs

United Sikhs Staff Attorney Manmeet Singh told Land Line on Tuesday, Oct. 1, that his client, Jagjeet Singh, was told by the DOT officer who pulled him over to report to the Osyka Weigh Station. He was then asked to remove his kirpan, a small ceremonial sword, which is a religious symbol that initiated male Sikhs wear at all times. According to Manmeet Singh, a kirpan is never to be used as a weapon, but serves as a reminder to “uphold justice and serve humanity at all times.”

‘I am supposed to wear it on my person at all times, whether I am bathing, showering, sleeping – I never take it off,” Manmeet Singh said his client tried to explain to DOT officers at the weigh station. “He said officers then began mocking him, and one of them told his colleagues said that ‘they are all terrorists.’”

According to a joint letter sent to the Mississippi Department of Transportation by the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Sikhs, a United Nations-affiliated organization, they claim the DOT officer then “forced (Jagjeet) Singh to circle his truck with his hands on his turban while the other officers searched his vehicle and continued to taunt and laugh at him.”

After he refused to remove his kirpan, which was sheathed and sealed to his waistband by a holster strap, Manmeet Singh said they handcuffed him and “snatched his kirpan from his person” and called another DOT officer to arrest him and take him to jail.

“Jagjeet showed them videos on his phone and on YouTube about the Sikh faith and he tried to explain that a kirpan is one of the five articles of his faith, but they wouldn’t listen to him and were mocking him,” Manmeet Singh said.

At the jail in Pike County, Miss., Manmeet Singh said officers then forced Jagjeet Singh to remove his turban, despite his efforts to explain its significance in the Sikh faith, that it covers his unshorn hair.

“Asking a devout Sikh man to remove his turban is akin to asking a Sikh to get naked, like a strip search,” he said. “He said that I cannot do this. It’s not a hat; this is an article of my faith. This is a reminder of my faith.”

However, he said officers forced him to unravel his turban, layer by layer, but was later allowed to tie it back, according to Manmeet Singh. The truck driver, who owns California-based Khalsa Transport, was then charged with “not obeying a lawful command.”

“They could not charge him with carrying a weapon, because it was not a weapon in the real sense,” Manmeet Singh said.

His family posted bond, and he was released with the promise that he would return for his court date in March.

Manmeet Singh said the United Sikhs organization worked with an attorney in Pike County to represent Jagjeet Singh at his court hearing.

Manmeet Singh said what happened at his court date on March 26 shocked both Jagjeet Singh and his attorney, LeeAnn Slipher, who arrived in time to see four Mississippi Highway Patrol officers escorting the truck driver from the courtroom for refusing to remove his turban or “hat” as they called it because the “judge doesn’t like it.”

“He was going to plead guilty to the not obeying a lawful command charge, which he was doing with a heavy heart, but in cases of non-adjudication (process for first-time nonviolent defendants) he was supposed to appear at the start of the docket,” Manmeet Singh said.

He said Slipher, who provided him with a detailed account of the incident, met with Pike County Judge Aubrey Rimes in his chambers to find out what was going on.

He said the judge told Slipher: “I am not going to allow him in my courtroom with that rag on his head. Either he removes that rag or he goes to the end of the docket.”

“As any devout Sikh would do, he did not remove his turban,” Manmeet Singh said. “He was made to wait three or four hours until the very end of the docket, but the judge did let him plead guilty to the charge and pay the fine.”

United Sikhs then filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, which investigated the allegations brought to light by Jagjeet Singh.

As a result of the DOJ investigation, the Pike County Board of Supervisors had to revise its harassment and nondiscrimination policy. Its new policy, which applies to all county employees, states that “Activities that constitute religious discrimination include, but are not limited to, requiring an individual to remove a head covering or denying that individual access to a county building, program or activity because they are wearing a head covering, if that head covering is worn for religious reasons.”

While Manmeet Singh said this is a huge step toward educating the public and county employees about the Sikh religion and discrimination that other religions face, he said the new policy does not apply to the judicial branch because of the doctrine of separation of powers. He said the judge who asked to have Jagjeet Singh removed from his courtroom “still has a free-hand to do whatever he wants,” he said.

Manmeet Singh said United Sikhs plans to file a judicial complaint with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance about Judge Rimes’ alleged discriminatory practices. As of press time on Wednesday, Oct. 2, the complaint had not been filed.

Bear Atwood, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Mississippi, told Land Line on Monday, Sept. 30, that her agency and the United Sikhs have also filed a complaint with the Mississippi Department of Transportation about the “misconduct of the officers on that day.”

“We think that it is important to ask the DOT to do an investigation,” she said. “Mississippi, although a very religious state, is also a very Christian religious state. We see this as an opportunity to really get the DOT to take action and educate their officers, their employees who interact with the public.”

Atwood said DOT officials have until Oct. 15 to respond to the ACLU and the United Sikhs’ joint letter.

“Obviously the flat tire needed to be dealt with, but there shouldn’t have been any reason, once it was established that (Jagjeet Singh) had a license, for anything other than making sure the flat tire got resolved.”

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