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February 5, 2013

Religious Accommodation for Sikh Corrections Officer

Last week, responding to appeals by The Sikh Coalition and ADL, the Arizona Department of Corrections agreed to allow a religious accommodation for Ikhbinder Bassin, a ten-year employee of the Department and an observant Sikh. 

As part of his religious obligations, Mr. Bassin does not cut his hair (including facial hair) and wears a kara (a religiously mandated steel bracelet).  Upon his entry into his position in 2003, Mr. Bassin was granted a waiver from departmental policy that prohibits the wearing of bracelets (other than for medical purposes) and from shearing his hair.  However, in December of 2012, close to his 10th anniversary, when Mr. Bassin would apparently become eligible for extended employee benefits, he was notified by a compliance officer that he was not in compliance with Arizona Department of Corrections policy.  The compliance officer advised Mr. Bassin that he must comply or face possible termination or reassignment into a non-uniform position.

Acting on Mr. Bassin’s behalf, The Sikh Coalition notified the Department that under federal and state law, including the First Amendment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act, terminating or demoting Mr. Bassin for his religious beliefs would violate the Department’s obligations under the law.

With time running out, and little indication that his religious accommodation would be granted, Mr. Bassin reached out to ADL and other organizations to advocate that his religious rights be accommodated.  Following a consultation with The Sikh Coalition, ADL endorsed their efforts, addressing a letter to a variety of Arizona government stakeholders. The League notified these government officials that we agreed with The Sikh Coalition’s legal analysis, and urged a religious accommodation for Mr. Bassin.  ADL’s Arizona regional office also signed on to an interfaith coalition letter supporting Mr. Bassin’s request.  These coalition efforts paid off.

By granting Mr. Bassin the requested accommodation, the Arizona Department of Corrections demonstrated a welcome respect for fundamental principles of religious liberty. When similar situations arise elsewhere, other Departments should follow Arizona’s lead.

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