Face to faith
Sikh community seeks justice and education after truck driver arrested, charged with refusing to remove religious symbols in Mississippi.

By Clarissa Hawes, staff writer

What started as a routine stop by a Mississippi Department of Transportation officer over a flat tire 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.

In January 2012, Jagjeet Singh, 49, was on his way to pick up a load of chicken from McComb, Miss., when he was stopped by a DOT officer for a flat tire on his trailer.

United Sikhs Staff Attorney Manmeet Singh told Land Line in October that his client, Jagjeet Singh, was told by the DOT officer 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.

Manmeet said his client tried to explain the articles of his faith, but that “officers then began mocking him, and one of them told his colleagues that ‘they are all terrorists.’”

After he refused to remove his kirpan, which was sheathed and secured to his waistband by a holster strap, Manmeet said they handcuffed him, removed his kirpan and took him to jail.

At the jail in Pike County, Miss., Manmeet said officers then forced Jagjeet to remove his turban.

“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.”

Officers proceeded to force him to unravel his turban.

Jagjeet was 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 said.

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

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

Manmeet said what happened at his court date in March shocked both Jagjeet 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.”

Slipher met with Pike County Judge Aubrey Rimes in his chambers to find out what was going on.

According to Manmeet, 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 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 levied by Jagjeet.

As a result of the investigation of the DOJ, the Pike County Board of Supervisors had to revise its harassment and nondiscrimination policy, which applies to all county employees.

While Manmeet said this is a huge step toward educating the public and government 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 removed from his courtroom “still has a free-hand to do whatever he wants.”

As of press time in November, Manmeet said United Sikhs and the ACLU planned to file a judicial complaint with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance about Judge Rimes’ alleged discriminatory practices.

The ACLU and the United Sikhs have also filed a complaint with the Mississippi Department of Transportation about the “misconduct of the officers on that day.”

“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,” said ACLU attorney Bear Atwood. LL