Sikhs demand Kamala Harris’ apology over Calif. prison guards’ beard ban

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) addresses the crowd at the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Getty Images)

A group of Sikh activists has launched an online petition asking Indian-American Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Devi Harris to apologize to the community for allegedly defending a discriminatory policy in 2011 when she was California’s Attorney General.

The online petition was launched last week by Rajdeep Singh Jolly, a Sikh lawyer in Washington, D.C., alleging that during her tenure as California’s Attorney General, Harris defended a policy that prohibited state prison guards from keeping beards for religious reasons, even though exceptions were given for medical reasons.

The case settled without a policy change in 2011, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation and forcing California Sikhs to successfully lobby for stronger workplace religious freedom laws in the state the following year.

On the night of June 27 Democratic primary debates, Sen. Harris grabbed national attention by challenging former Vice President Joe Biden over his past opposition to federal busing and his collaborations with segregationist lawmakers.

But Jolly claimed that while Kamala Harris lectures her opponents on civil rights, she needs to apologize for trampling on the civil rights of Sikh Americans as California’s attorney general.

“She accused Joe Biden of being weak on civil rights, but I think that was being disingenuous,” Jolly said. “If she’s going to call out other candidates for their shortcomings on civil rights issues, she needs to own up to her own mistakes,” he said.

The petition alleged that just three days after she was sworn in as California’s first Indian-American attorney general, Harris “argued to dismiss a lawsuit” filed by a Sikh man for being denied a government job because of his beard.

“At a time when Sikhs were struggling against discrimination in the post-9/11 environment, she could have used her discretion as attorney general to expand equal opportunity for Sikhs and other religious minorities who wanted to serve as security officers in her state,” Jolly said.

Jolly, who at the time was working as the policy director for the Sikh Coalition ,said while Harris had the authority to drop the case or promote changes to the policy, she “dug her heels in” on the issue, according to a Religion News Service report.

More than 700 people have so far signed the online petition which aims to gather 1,000 signatures.

“At a time when the Obama/Biden administration made historic efforts to allow observant Sikh Americans to serve in the U.S. armed forces, Senator Harris was defending a state policy that forced an American to choose between his faith and his livelihood,” it said.

“Instead of lecturing other presidential candidates on civil rights, Senator Harris must apologize to the Sikh community and pledge to protect religious freedom and equal opportunity for all Americans,” it added.

Winty Singh, author of the American Turban blog and commentator on Sikh American issues, was quoted as saying by RNS that Harris’ civil rights rhetoric will ring hollow until she addresses her defense of workplace discrimination against Sikhs.

“Watching her during the debate, it was like there was a complete disconnect with her record and the intentional actions she took to discriminate against a Sikh man in California,” Winty Singh, a Los Angeles-based health care administrator who blogs about Sikh American issues and helped lead the petition, said.

“It just reeks of discrimination, and it was alarming to me as a fellow Sikh man with a beard in California.”

Kate Waters, a spokeswoman for the Harris campaign, said in an email to RNS July 2 that as attorney general of California, “Senator Harris was obligated to defend state clients including the Department of Corrections.

“There were unfortunately situations like this one where her clients took positions that were contrary to her beliefs. It obviously would have been a preferable to have the Department of Corrections willingly change this policy through negotiation, but instead it chose to move forward with litigation,” she said in the email.

Jolly said he expected such a response.

“If she becomes president, I think Sikhs and other religious minorities deserve reassurance that she’s going to be on our side,” Jolly said, noting that policies that do not account for the needs of any one religious minority leave all minorities vulnerable.

The Sikh Coalition said the petition is an important move to raise awareness of Sikh civil rights issues in the election process.

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