APRIL 2002
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Allow Turbans, Beards In office, Sikhs Tell NYPD

From Indian Express
22 March 2002
By Sujeet Rajan

He insisted on retaining his turban and beard for religious reasons. And for that, 25-year-old Amric Singh Rathour, a rookie Sikh cop had to pay with his job last year. Now, the Sikh Coalition, a group of about 50 national Sikh organizations, has collected over 5,100 signatures in a petition, to be delivered to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and to the New York Police Department (NYPD), for Rathour's reinstatement.

The Sikh community has been trying to overcome the trauma of an "identity crisis" ever since the September 11th attacks. Mistaken for Muslims and followers of Osama bin Laden, Sikhs were the victims of numerous attacks in the immediate aftermath.

Perhaps bound together by such racial violence, community members have now rallied behind Rathour, who was fired last July. Born in New York, Rathour was selected as a probationary traffic enforcement agent early last year. He cleared all the formalities and attended the swearing-in ceremony on June 18. In the two months of training that followed, Rathour maintained a patka, a short turban, to which NYPD officers did not raise any objections.

However, Rathour's request to the department to be allowed to wear a turban and keep a beard was denied. He was told that he would have to wear the official police cap over his turban and could not grow a beard which exceeded one millimeter. When he refused to comply with these stipulations, Rathour was fired.

In its petition (www.petitiononline.com/SikhNYPD/petition.html), the Sikh coalition has criticized the "no turban" policy adopted by the NYPD, in contrast to police forces in other major cities of the world. The petition says that Sikh officers have been allowed to wear the turban and keep a beard in places like Canada, England and Hong Kong. Sikh members have also expressed their "distress" at the fact that Rathour was mistaken for a member of the Muslim faith.

"His (Amric's) letter of termination cited a provision of the NYPD dress code, requiring all police officers to wear police caps on their heads, as the reason for his termination. To add insult to injury, the NYPD not only terminated Amric for refusing to take off his religiously mandated turban, but out of ignorance offered him an opportunity to comply with the mandates of Islam rather than Sikhism. This lack of knowledge is very disturbing," says the petition.

Last July, during a hearing with the Police Department's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, Rathour was told by an official that his beard would have to be "trimmed to one millimeter in length" and his turban "would have to be small" and "fit underneath the uniform hat," according to a transcript of the meeting obtained by the Times Ledger, which reported the story.

The one millimeter rule was advocated in the force after a recommendation by a Muslim religious leader, Imam Pasha. "Needless to say, the same rules should not apply to Sikhs," said a spokesperson of the coalition. "It is not only a case of misunderstanding the Sikh faith, but also a violation of civil rights to practice ones' religion."

The Sikh coalition has decided to file a lawsuit against the NYPD if Rathour is not reinstated. They have hired a New Jersey lawyer, Ravinder Bhalla, for the case.
However, the spokesperson said the priority was to get the job back and put the Sikh faith and its tenets in proper light. "We want America to know who Sikhs are," he said. "This is part of a much bigger fight."

The fight by minority communities here to practice the regulations and requirements of their religion is not a new one. In 1990, Baltej Singh Dhillon, a Sikh officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, successfully challenged in court his department's refusal to allow him to wear his turban as part of his uniform.

More recently, in 1999, two Muslim police officers who wanted to keep their beards forced the issue in Newark, New Jersey. The case was decided in the Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court's ruling that a ban on beards would violate the officers' freedom of religion. In its ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said that if medical exceptions allowed beards, then it was not proper to deny a request based on religious grounds. Medical exemptions are the only exceptions granted by the NYPD for facial hair beyond one millimeter.

Rathour's case could also revive the case of Jasjit Singh Jaggi, whose request to wear his turban on duty was denied. Jaggi complied with the rules of the force and wears a New York Police Department cap over his turban.

This latest case occurs at a time when President George W. Bush has made several highly publicized appearances with Sikh and Muslim leaders at the White House. He has condemned the atrocities against Sikhs and has denounced discrimination against them for keeping their long beards and turbans. The Sikh community has hired a publicity firm in New Jersey to make mainstream America more aware of the religion.

However, not all police departments in the country have similar rules. According to news reports, Sheriff Leroy Baca, head of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department, encouraged Sikhs to join his department in a recent public meeting, saying there would not be a problem with turbans.


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