ACLU Files Lawsuit to Protect Religious Liberty of Imprisoned Asylum Seeker

May 18, 2005 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO — The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging restrictions on an asylum seeker’s right to wear a religious head covering. The plaintiff, Harpal Singh Cheema, is a devout Sikh, imprisoned since 1997 while awaiting a decision on his asylum application.

“It is deeply troubling that a person seeking refuge from persecution can not only be locked up for years on end but also be deprived of the religious freedom he expected in America,” said Robin Goldfaden, staff counsel with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

Fleeing persecution, Cheema, a human rights lawyer and political activist in India, escaped to the United States after enduring brutal torture at the hands of Indian authorities. Since 1993, his application for asylum and other immigration relief has been making its way through the immigration and federal courts.

While the Sikh faith requires men to cover their heads at all times, Yuba County jail authorities will not permit Cheema to leave his bed with his head covered. “Confinement to bed should not be the price of complying with religious obligations,” Goldfaden said.

Along with Yuba County Jail officials, the lawsuit names as defendants federal immigration authorities who are responsible for Cheema’s detention. The federal government contracts with local facilities such as Yuba County Jail to house individuals who are detained pending the outcome of their immigration proceedings. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement remains responsible for ensuring that each facility complies with national detention standards. These standards include guidelines stating that immigration detainees should be allowed to wear religious head coverings.

The lawsuit charges that the restrictions on Cheema’s religious practice violate religious freedom as guaranteed by the First Amendment and federal laws, including the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “At a time when the world is watching how America treats its detainees abroad, it is important that our government respect the fundamental rights of people detained in this country,” said Margaret Crosby, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

“Wearing a turban is one of the Sikh religion’s central requirements,” said Jaskaran Kaur, Executive Director of ENSAAF, a nonprofit organization working with survivors of human rights abuses from India. “For Mr. Cheema, having his head uncovered is a deeply humiliating and defiling experience.” The daastar, as the Sikh turban is known, is a mandatory symbol of devotion to the faith, explained Kaur.

Representing Cheema along with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and the ACLU of Northern California are ENSAAF and the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

The case is Cheema v. Chandless, filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California.

The complaint is available online at: /node/35001.

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