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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Sikh American Student in Alabama allowed to Return to School with both Turban and Hair Intact

SALDEF defends Sikh convert's right to maintain the Sikh identity in Alabama Public High School

ast week, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), the oldest Sikh American civil rights and advocacy organization in the country, successfully represented a 15 year old Alabama high school student who was allowed to return to school after being kicked out of Good Hope High School for keeping his hair uncut and wearing his patka – a religiously mandated Sikh head covering.

Earlier this Spring, while researching religion on the internet, Mr. Tommy DeForest came across the Sikh faith and immediately felt an affinity for the faith. After reading more about the religion, Mr. DeForest started to keep his hair uncut and wear a make-shift head covering. Upon trying to attend classes at Good Hope High School, Mr. DeForest was turned away at the campus gates and told that he would not be allowed on campus with his long hair. Mr DeForest was also subjected to repeated disciplinary punishment and finally suspended for his resolve to freely practice his faith.

A meeting was subsequently arranged between the DeForest Family and the school administration. At this meeting, Principal Anita Kilpatrich and the Superintendent for Education of Cullman County Hank Allen, adamantly supported their decision to deny Mr. DeForest from practicing his faith freely while attending public school. Additionally at this meeting, the suspension was extended indefinitely – effectively denying Mr. DeForest the right to public education simply due to his religious affiliation and forcing him to chose between his faith and an education.

Mr. DeForest contacted SALDEF with his concerns surrounding his ability to freely practice his faith, as guaranteed by the Freedom of Religious Expression principle within the United States Constitution. Mr. DeForest and his family were put in contact with local Alabama Sikh American community activist Rajinder Singh Mehta who provided Tommy with a patka and kara (steel bracelet), both mandated Sikh articles of faith.

β€œFor a public school in our Nation to essentially tell a child to check his faith at the door and to force the student to choose between receiving an education and practicing their faith is a tragic violation of the principles that our country was founded on,” stated SALDEF Managing Director Kavneet Singh. "This type of action is completely inexcusable and counter to the rich diversity found in the South and across the country."

SALDEF is pleased that Tommy DeForest has been allowed back in school while maintaining the articles of the Sikh faith. We thank the school and district administration for working with SALDEF to resolve this situation satisfactorily. SALDEF is hopeful that faculty and administration of schools across the United States will take steps to understand and inform themselves of the diversity of religious practices among their student populations, so instances like this will not happen in the future. [SALDEF Press Release]

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