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Keker & Van Nest Wins Pro Bono Discrimination Case on Behalf of Sikh Federal Employees

The Sikh Coalition

The federal government has issued a policy allowing all Sikhs to serve as federal security officers while maintaining their turbans and beards. The decision was the result of a discrimination case filed by a Sikh security officer who was told that he could not maintain his turban and beard on the job.

The lawsuit settlement and change in policy are a major civil rights victory for the Sikh community. It marks the first time that a federal law enforcement agency has changed policy to accommodate the Sikh articles of faith.

The lawsuit that led to the settlement was brought jointly by the Sikh Coalition, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the law firm of Keker & Van Nest LLP.

Fired Because He was a Sikh

Raghbir Singh (who goes by "Major Gill") wears a turban and keeps an unshorn beard, which are requirements of the Sikh faith.

He comes from a family of freedom fighters who fought and were jailed during India's struggle for independence. Major Gill served in the Indian Army for almost 34 years, retired with the rank of "major", and subsequently immigrated with his family to the U.S. in 2004. Soon after, he began working as a security officer in Fresno, CA.

In 2005, Major Gill obtained a position with a company called NCLN20.

The company held a contract with the Federal Protective Service (FPS) - a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)- to provide security guard services for federal facilities. Contract security officer positions are desirable because they often pay more than regular guard positions. Major Gill began serving on NCLN20's government contract guarding a federal building in Fresno.

However, FPS's uniform and grooming policies prohibited Major Gill from wearing a turban or keeping a beard on the job. Under these policies, contract security officers had to wear a uniform hat and be clean-shaven. Major Gill requested that the government accommodate his Sikh articles of faith. However, FPS refused - and forced him off of the contract. Because NCLN20 had no other security officer positions, the company fired him. Major Gill lost his job only because he is a Sikh.

Major Gill reached out to the Sikh Coalition for help in November 2005. The Coalition engaged the Lawyers'' Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) and the law firm of Keker & Van Nest LLP, both based in

San Francisco, CA. The joint legal team filed internal complaints with DHS, and ultimately a lawsuit in a San Francisco federal court in 2007.

The Sikh Coalition Intervenes

Through the case, the Coalition was able to push FPS to change its uniform and grooming policies to accommodate Sikh articles of faith. As a result, Sikhs can now serve as contract security guards with the federal government with unshorn hair, beards, turbans, and kirpans intact.

"Holding the federal government accountable for discriminating against Sikhs sends a strong message to private employers. If the government includes Sikh Americans in its workforce, then other employers are encouraged to do the same," said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director at the Sikh Coalition.

Notably, Major Gill's case not only pushed the government to change its discriminatory policy, but he obtained money damages as part of its resolution. Major Gill settled his lawsuit against NCLN20 in January of 2008, and against the federal government in June of 2009. He received money damages from NCLN20 in 2008, and from the federal government just this month. "Both the policy change and the money damages will ensure that other employers think twice about the price of discriminating against Sikhs," added Ms. Kaur.

The Sikh Coalition would like to thank attorneys Khari Tillery, Rose Darling, and Jon Streeter at Keker & Van Nest LLP, Robert Rubin at LCCR, and Shirin Sinnar (formerly at LCCR) for their hard work and dedication to the case.