The Sikh Coalition launched a petition drive Oct. 8, asking the community to call upon their state legislators to demand that Brown take action on the long-pending case.
“This is clearly a discriminatory policy that the Attorney General is defending, and there’s a certain irony here given that Brown has a reputation of being very liberal on civil rights issues,” Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition, said.
Kaur asserted that the timing of the launch of the petition drive was not intended to hamper Brown’s bid for governor.
Susan Slager, lead attorney on the case for the AG’s office, said she could not comment on the case, and referred the matter to Robert Gaultney, staff counsel for the CDCR, who also declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Calls to Brown’s gubernatorial campaign headquarters had not been returned at press time.
Former Indian naval officer Trilochan Singh Oberoi applied to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2005 for a job as a correctional officer at the Folsom State Prison.
After passing a battery of exams, Oberoi was told by prison officials that he would have to shave off his beard before taking the final “Respirator Fit” test. Oberoi refused, saying his beard was religiously mandated. The CDCR then deemed Oberoi unfit for employment with the agency.
“I simply want a chance to serve my country,” Oberoi said from his Folsom, Calif., home.
Oberoi, who comes from a defense family, said he had worn gas masks on several occasions in his 26-year career as an Indian naval officer and nine years as a ship captain. He noted that he kept his beard tied, not free-flowing, which he said posed little impediment to wearing a mask.
Oberoi currently works as an instructional aide in the Folsom Unified School District, and also works at Walmart.
The California State Personnel Board ruled in favor of Oberoi on Nov. 10, 2008, noting that the CDCR had made no efforts to accommodate a religious requirement, or to consider alternatives to the gas mask.
The personnel board concluded that the CDCR had discriminated against Oberoi on the basis of his religion and ordered that the agency expedite Oberoi’s application for employment. The board also ordered the CDCR to determine a way to accommodate Oberoi’s beard, once he was employed.
In the two years since the ruling, the Sikh Coalition and Oberoi’s attorney, Harmeet Dhillon, assert that the AG’s office has vigorously defended the CDCR, which has not yet allowed Oberoi to work in the state’s prison system. A second case was filed in state District Court in August 2009, which seeks $200,000 in back pay and punitive damages.
Dhillon contended that Brown has unflaggingly impeded the progress of this case.
“Brown raises tons of money from the Sikh community in Yuba City and around the state every time he runs, yet although the law and facts are squarely against them he insists on obstructing justice,” charged Dhillon, adding that the CDCR’s refusal to cede to the personnel board’s decision
was “a waste of taxpayer money.”
“(Brown) has taken a rigid, knee-jerk, inflexible position saying that my client is not eligible for accommodation,” said Dhillon, noting that the U.S. Army recently began accepting turbaned and bearded Sikhs into its ranks, who will serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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