Today, in a letter to the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), the ACLU and United Sikhs called on state officials to investigate the harassment of a Sikh commercial truck driver pulled over early this year for a flat tire. After detaining Mr. Jagjeet Singh in January as he passed through Mississippi, the officers called him a "terrorist" and harassed and humiliated him because of his appearance and religious beliefs. As a devout Sikh, Mr. Singh wears a turban and carries a kirpan. A kirpan is a small, spiritual sword that is sheathed and sewn to the waistband. It is designed and worn as an article of faith, much as a cross is worn by devout Christians.
Contending, wrongly, that his kirpan was illegal, the officers demanded that Mr. Singh remove it. When Mr. Singh explained that he was a Sikh and that the kirpan was a sacred religious article, the officers laughed at him and mocked his religious beliefs. One officer declared that all Sikhs are "depraved" and "terrorists." They continued to taunt him, and forced Mr. Singh to circle his truck with his hands on his turban while they searched the vehicle. Finally, not content with this humiliation, they arrested him, claiming that Mr. Singh had refused to obey an officer's lawful command.
Mr. Singh's ordeal did not end with the MDOT. When he returned to Mississippi on March 26, 2013, for his court date at the Pike County Justice Court, he once again suffered humiliation, harassment, and discrimination because of his religious beliefs. Waiting for his attorney in the back of the courtroom, he was stunned when four Highway Patrol officers approached him and ordered him to leave the courtroom. The officers stated that Judge Aubrey Rimes had ordered them to eject Mr. Singh from the courtroom because he did not like Mr. Singh's turban. Moreover, they told Mr. Singh that Judge Rimes would punish him if he failed to remove his headdress.
When Mr. Singh's attorney went to Judge Rimes's chambers to inquire about the matter, he readily confirmed that he had expelled Mr. Singh from the courtroom because of his turban. He further stated that Mr. Singh would not be allowed to re-enter the courtroom unless he removed "that rag" from his head and threatened to call Mr. Singh last on the docket if he continued to wear the religious headdress.
As an observant Sikh, Mr. Singh wears a turban at all times as a reminder and public declaration of his connection to God. For him, the turban is an inseparable part of his Sikh religious identity: Like all Sikhs, Mr. Singh believes that a man cannot be considered a Sikh if he does not wear the turban and that unwrapping his turban and exposing his "naked" head in public is sacrilegious and shameful.
Mr. Singh respectfully declined to remove his turban. As threatened, Judge Rimes forced Mr. Singh and his attorney to wait for several hours until every other litigant had been heard before allowing him into the courtroom.
The Pike County Board of Supervisors recently recognized that Judge Rimes's harassment of Mr. Singh was unacceptable. In response to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the Board revised the County's harassment and non-discrimination policy to explain 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."
But Judge Rimes should not have needed a DOJ investigation or county policy to know that his conduct was impertinent and inappropriate. Our justice system is founded on the principle that every person entering a courthouse is equal before the law and is entitled to respect. Judge Rimes's treatment of Mr. Singh – in particular his use of the slur "rag" and his effort to intimidate and embarrass Mr. Singh because of his minority faith – flouted his responsibility under the Mississippi Judicial Code of Conduct to uphold the dignity of the judiciary.
The ACLU and United Sikhs also plan to file a complaint with the Mississippi Judicial Commission, asking officials to investigate Judge Rimes's conduct and impose appropriate sanctions.
The letter sent today to MDOT officials demands that they provide public documents relating to Mr. Singh's detainment and arrest and urges them to implement an ongoing training program to educate officers about their responsibility to treat every person with dignity and to remain respectful of religious diversity.