The ACLU has filed two complaints with Mississippi state officials, claiming that a Sikh truck driver was harassed by traffic cops for possessing a religious talisman and then further humiliated by a county judge who referred to his turban as "that rag."
"This is a disgrace and a clear infringement of religious rights," said Bear Atwood, a lawyer for the Mississippi office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "He was treated disgracefully by the Department of Transportation. Then he came back to Mississippi for his court date and was treated very badly by a judge whose behavior was despicable."
On Jan. 16, Jagjeet Singh, 49, a long-haul truck driver from California on his way to pick up chickens for delivery in Texas, was pulled over for driving with a flat tire in Pike County, Miss.
Officers at a weigh station operated by the Department of Transportation demanded that Singh turn over his "kirpan," a 3-inch ceremonial blade carried by all Sikh men and frequently sewed into the waistband of their trousers, according to the ACLU.
"Contending, wrongly, that his kirpan was illegal, the DOT officer demanded that Mr. Singh turn it over. Mr. Singh tried to explain that he was a Sikh and that the kirpan was a sacred religious article," the ACLU wrote in a letter of complaint to the DOT. "In response, however, the officer laughed at him and mocked his religious beliefs.
"One officer declared that all Sikhs are depraved and 'terrorists,'" the ACLU said in its letter. DOT officers then arrested Singh for "refusing to obey a command" when he would not turn over his kirpan to police, according to the ACLU.
A state DOT spokesman confirmed Singh's arrest and his agency's receipt of the letter, but would not comment on the allegations directly, calling them a "personnel matter."
"We just got the letter. We're looking into the allegations," said DOT spokesman Jared Ravencraft. "This incident happened in January and this is the first anyone has mentioned these types of allegations against our employees."
Singh appeared in court on March 26, when, his lawyers said, he was further demeaned by Pike County Judge Aubrey Rimes.
"Court officers told him he had to leave because he was wearing a turban and the judge wanted it removed. He was intimidated and horrified," said the ACLU's Atwood.
Rimes allegedly called Singh's turban "that rag" and insisted he remove it or his case would be called last on the docket after everyone else in the courtroom had left. Singh refused to remove the turban and was called last.
According to the ACLU, Singh pleaded guilty to the charge of refusing to obey a command and paid a fine.
Repeated messages left at the nursery Judge Rimes owns and at his chambers were not returned.
Pike County Administrator Andrew Alford referred ABC News to a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice agreeing to close an initial federal investigation if Pike County revised its nondiscrimination policy and implemented sensitivity training.
The ACLU called the DOJ's letter a "first step," but said action would have to be taken at the state level both at the Department of Transportation and by the Mississippi Judicial Commission.
Darlene Ballard, executive director of the commission, which investigates ethics violations by state jurists, said it could not comment on a specific case or confirm if a complaint had been made until and unless the commission recommended sanctions to the state Supreme Court.
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