Religious Freedom Under Attack in Oklahoma

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Proposed law will forbid all religious headcoverings in driver's license photos; SALDEF urges interfaith groups and civil rights organizations to stand together and support religious freedom

We look forward to educating Mr. Duncan and his colleagues about religious freedom

This morning, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), the oldest Sikh American civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States, called upon members of the Oklahoma State Senate to prove that religious freedom is state policy in Oklahoma. This demand comes on the heels of the passage last night of legislation (HB 1645) in the Oklahoma House of Representatives that would "strictly prohibit" individuals from wearing "head scarves" and "head garments" in driver's license photographs. Members of the House voted 88-8 in favor of the measure.

According to an editorial in a local newspaper, the legislation was introduced by Oklahoma Rep. Rex Duncan in response to news that a Muslim woman was allowed to wear a hijab in her driver's license photograph at her local Department of Motor Vehicles. Because the proposed law forbids all headcoverings, the religious rights of observant Sikhs who wear religiously-mandated dastaars (Sikh turbans) are in jeopardy. Observant Jews, Muslims, and Christians are also affected, as are other individuals who are required to wear religious headcoverings.

Founded in South Asia by Guru Nanak over 500 years ago, the Sikh religion is the fifth largest religion in the world, with more than 25 million followers worldwide and approximately 700,000 adherents in the United States. The dastaar is worn by observant Sikhs as a reminder of their relationship with God and their obligation to promote the Sikh belief in universal equality.

When SALDEF contacted Rep. Duncan on February 27, 2009 to express concern and elicit clarification about his motives, his office denied having knowledge of the issue. Now, SALDEF is working alongside the ACLU of Oklahoma and other coalition partners to persuade the Oklahoma State Senate to ensure that a religious exemption is carved out of the proposed legislation.

"We look forward to educating Mr. Duncan and his colleagues about religious freedom," said Rajdeep Singh Jolly, Legal Director of SALDEF. "We also call upon all religious communities, civil rights organizations, and concerned citizens throughout the nation to demand that the government of Oklahoma clarifies its commitment to protecting civil rights in the 21st century."

For additional information on a similar issue in Minnesota, click here:
Minn. Muslims Oppose Bill Banning Hijab on Driver's Photos.

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Rajdeep Singh Jolly
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