In a move that Mississippi might be regretting, a Sikh man was arrested and humiliated in the state over refusing to remove religious attire. The incident happened last January when Jagjeel Singh, a long-distance truck driver, was stopped by state police officers for driving with a flat tire. During the stop, they harassed and mocked him for wearing a turban, while one officer stated that all Sikhs are ‘depraved’ and ‘terrorists’.
Finally, the officers told Singh that the small, sheathed ceremonial sword, called a kirpan, that he was wearing was illegal. This isn’t true, but they ordered him to remove it. The kirpan is sewn into the waistband of a Sikh man’s trousers and is a sacred religious object, which Singh tried to explain. He declined to remove it and asked that he not be forced to do so. The result of this request was that he was arrested for refusing to obey a police command.
Matters got worse from here. The rest of the nation has long been accustomed to hearing about the abuses of Mississippi police officers when it comes to members of minority groups. Usually, the justice system isn’t much better — and that’s certainly the situation in this case. In March, Singh showed up for his hearing before the Pike County Court. As he sat in the courtroom waiting for his case to be called, four policemen approached to eject him from the room — at the judge’s behest.
Judge Aubrey Rimes ordered the removal because he didn’t like the turban Mr. Singh was wearing, which is also of religious significance. In chambers, the judge confirmed to the defendant’s lawyer that not only did he order the removal, but if Singh didn’t take off the turban, he would wait until all the cases were heard before calling up that one. And that’s precisely what happened. Singh spent the day waiting for his ‘turn’.
However, unlike many who have been targeted for discrimination in the state, Mr. Singh was not all on his own to face the Mississippi ‘justice’ system. First, the United Sikhs organization got involved, providing him with legal representation. Local lawyer LeeAnn Slipher not only stood up for her client in court, negotiating for charges to be dropped and her client released, but was a vital witness to the abuse that took place at the hands of the judge.
With irrefutable evidence available, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division opened an investigation and the results have been relatively immediate. Pike County agreed to institute sensitivity training and to revise their nondiscrimination policy in return for an end to the investigation. The county’s policy now specifically says that religious discrimination includes:
… requiring an individual to remove a head covering or denying that individual access to a County office, building, program or activity because they are wearing a head covering, if that head covering is worn for religious reasons.
Although Mississippi has been notoriously bad at dealing with civil rights issues, there is hope that the good news doesn’t stop there — especially since federal intervention has already taken place at the county level. On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to the Mississippi Department of Transportation, asking for an investigation of its officers on harassment charges. The ACLU also announced plans to file a complaint with the Mississippi Judicial Commission, in cooperation with United Sikhs, asking for an investigation of Judge Rimes and for the imposition of consequences for his actions.
The outcome, of course, will depend on watchful eyes from elsewhere in the nation.