Sikh detainees in Oregon move US court to seek religious rights

The Sikh detainees have sought specific directions from the court that they be provided with religious headwear, including turbans, and personal religious items seized at the time they were taken into custody.
Asylum seekers kept at the Oregon prison say they are not allowed to wear turban and are not given religiously appropriate food.(HT File)
Asylum seekers kept at the Oregon prison say they are not allowed to wear turban and are not given religiously appropriate food.(HT File)
Updated on Aug 08, 2018 09:07 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | By

Sikh asylum seekers detained at the Sheridan detention centre (FDC) in Oregon have petitioned a United States district court to direct the government to accommodate their religious beliefs and practices in accordance with the First Amendment.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees that the federal government shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The petition would be heard by chief district judge, Oregon, Michael W Mosman on August 9.

About 121 asylum seekers, including 52 Indians and mostly Sikhs, have been detained at the Sheridan FDC by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities for illegally entering the US from Mexico. The petition has been filed by ICE detainee No. 1 with warden of the Sheridan prison and an ICE official as respondents.

The Sikh detainees have sought specific directions from the court that they be provided with religious headwear, including turbans, and personal religious items seized at the time they were taken into custody besides being allowed pastoral visits and religious services from representatives of their faith, access to religious writings in appropriate languages, appropriate locations for prayer and religious practices and reasonable and appropriate opportunities to observe their religious dietary practices in a culturally appropriate manner.

‘Our religious items were confiscated’

The Sikh detainees said that upon being taken into custody, their turbans and other items essential to their religious practice were confiscated. The custodians also failed to advise detainees of what rights they had, how to seek religious accommodations, and what accommodations could be made, they said.

The punitive detention of immigrants in the Sheridan FDC has betrayed ideals and protections that are basic to American freedom and that motivated many of the detainees to seek asylum in this country, the petition said.

“For the first weeks after their arrival on May 31, the detainees were held virtually incommunicado at the Sheridan FDC, out of touch with anyone in the outside world, under onerous conditions of confinement, without compliance with laws requiring religious accommodations,’’ the petition reads.

‘Denial of statutory requirements’

Petitioners’ attorney Stephen R Sady said both ICE and the Bureau of Prison (BoP) have fallen far short of the statutory requirements for religious accommodation. For weeks, no religiously appropriate food was provided to those with dietary religious restrictions.

The performance-based national detention standards, which ICE revised in 2016, call for pastoral care, services, and accommodation for religious headwear and other items. The BoP program statement on religious headwear expressly authorises Sikhs “to wear the turban” as religious headwear throughout the institution.

The petitioners said the custodians’ claim that they lack the resources to accommodate religion is not permissible under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Religious Land Use and Institutionalised Persons Act. “The government cannot create a chaotic situation, then force the detainees to subsidise governmental actions by sacrificing their religious freedoms,’’ they said.

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