Sikh Americans Meet with Washington on Religious Ban Issue

In January 27th, an eleven-member delegation representing Sikh American organizations in the United States had a full day of meetings with various government agencies in Washington D.C. to voice their concern for the French ban on religious head coverings, according to a report released by Voices for Freedom.

The proposal by the French government to ban ostensible head coverings in public schools is facing mounting criticism in the United States. The ban would affect Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Sikh students who wear articles of faith. These students would be denied a public education and forced into parochial private schools, segregating them along religious lines.

In a meeting with the United States Department of State, the delegation was presented a letter that Republican Senator Rick Santorum wrote to French President Jacques Chirac asking him to reconsider his decision to ban the wearing of religious articles at public schools “as it will not resolve the conflicts between religious groups.”

"In the case of Sikh, Jewish, and Muslim head coverings, the French Republic could actually forbid people of those faiths to fulfill their religious requirements. In the case of crucifixes, your legislation places limits on Christians from freely expressing their faith," Senator Santorum wrote.

"I urge you to reconsider the tools you have adopted to reach your goal," he said in his letter.

The State Department cannot officially comment on the French ban at this time because there is no text of the law yet, although their official position written for the press is that: "A fundamental principle of our religious freedom advocacy is that all persons should be able to practice their religion and beliefs peacefully, without government interference – as long as they do so without provocation and intimidation of others in a society."

A Helsinki Commission official also expressed support to the Sikh delegation at a separate meeting in Washington D.C.

"In my opinion the French ban would amount to a human rights violation and appears not to uphold the commitments of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on religious freedom," said Mr. Knox Thames, policy analyst at the Helsinki Commission, an independent agency of the US government, charged with monitoring and encouraging compliance with commitments to promote human rights amongst the member countries of the OSCE.

The OSCE, of which France is a founding member, is the largest regional security organization in the world with 55 participating States from Europe, Central Asia and North America. It is active in early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation.

"Representatives of the OSCE will have an opportunity to raise this issue at the winter parliamentary assembly meeting of the OSCE on Feb 19th and 20th in Vienna," he said. "The members of the parliamentary assembly, who are elected representatives of member countries, could then table a resolution on this issue at their summer meeting later this year," Mr. Knox said.

Following the meeting with the Sikh delegation, the Helsinki Commission raised these concerns with the French Foreign ministry the next day. "It was a positive conversation and we hope that it might bear fruits for the future," Mr. Thames said.

The final stop for the Sikh delegation was the French Embassy. French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte told the Sikh delegation at the meeting that he would keep all lines of communication open with the Sikhs. When asked about the news report that French Education minister Luc Ferry had told Sikhs that a ‘discrete’ turban would be acceptable, the Ambassador said that he hoped this would resolve the issue.

He said that President Chirac's proposal is still being debated in France and he could say at this stage what the outcome of the debate would be.

A petition created by United Sikhs asking the French government to withdraw its proposed legislation currently has over 19,000 signatures from individuals, both online and offline; and over 220 signatures and endorsements from Sikh and non-Sikh organizations worldwide.

The Sikh delegation presented the petition and a power point presentation on Sikhs to all officials.

The 11-member delegation organized by Voices for Freedom and representing the 500,000 strong Sikh community comprised Voices For Freedom, a Human Rights Organization from New York, represented by Dr. Amarjit Singh; United Sikhs by Attorney Harpreet Singh; American Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee by Dr. Prithpal Singh; Guru Nanak Foundation, Maryland, by Bakshish Singh; Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, Maryland, by Navjit Kaur; Sikh Youth of America by Dr. Ranjit Singh; Sikh Coalition by Attorney Amardeep Singh; SMART by Preetmohan Singh; Sikh Sentinel by Anju Kaur; Singh Sabha of Virginia by Ranjit Singh; and Sikh Gurdwara of Greater Washington by Bhai Narendar Singh.

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