AG Kamala Harris backs state in Sikh’s lawsuit over beard

Three days after she was sworn in as the first Indian-American elected to statewide office, Attorney General Kamala Harris backed a state agency that denied a Sikh man a job because of his beard.

When Trilochan Singh Oberoi applied to be a corrections officer in March 2005, he completed a written test and was offered a job contingent on passing a vision test, a physical abilities test, a background investigation, a psychological evaluation and a pre-employment medical exam.

Oberoi met all the other requirements, but when he refused to shave for the medical exam’s mandated gas-mask fitting, he was denied the position, his lawyers said. Sikhs consider hair a religious sacrament that should not be cut, out of respect for God’s creation.

Following Oberoi’s appeal of his denial, the California State Personnel Board ruled in his favor in 2008 that the California Department of Corrections had failed to consider alternative ways of accommodating his religious beliefs, such as allowing him to wear a tight-fitting mask. But when Oberoi reapplied for a position, he was denied once more, and then sued the state for discrimination.

The new attorney general — who is half Indian and half black, and acts as counsel to the department — submitted a motion to dismiss the case Jan. 6.

Correctional officers are issued gas masks in case tear gas must be used, department spokeswoman Peggy Beng said. And the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that gas masks be fitted to a shaven face for a consistent, accurate fit, she noted.

“They have to be immediately ready to use these masks,” Beng said. However, she noted that the agency does grant medical exemptions for people who have proven a skin disorder or irritation and hair shorter than one inch.

Attorney Harmeet Dhillon, who is representing Oberoi along with the Sikh Coalition, pointed to this exemption Tuesday as proof that beards are not unsafe.

“The argument that the religious reasons cannot be accommodated is simply illogical,” she said.

Dhillon, who spoke at a news conference Tuesday at the offices of the Asian Law Caucus, said she was appalled by Harris’ decision.

The Attorney General’s Office declined to discuss the case, but spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh wrote via e-mail, “Attorney General Kamala D. Harris is deeply committed to encouraging tolerance and equal opportunity in California.”

An April 19 hearing has been scheduled to consider the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In the meantime, Oberoi, a former commander in the Indian navy, lives in Folsom with his wife and works part time at Wal-Mart and as an assistant math teacher.

Diversity tally

Ethnic makeup of the staff at the California Department of Corrections:

24,077 Non-Hispanic white (64.1%)

7,929 Black (21.1%)

4,209 Hispanic (11.2%)

800 Asian (2.1%)

514 American Indian (1.4 %)

15 Other

Source: Federal Bureau of Prisons

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