December 1, 2008 - (Fremont, CA) A Sikh correctional officer applicant to the California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was told he must shave his religiously-mandated beard for a gasmask fit test or sacrifice his job opportunity. After a legal battle with the CDCR, an administrative court ruled in his favor. The ruling sends a strong message to California state agencies to ensure equal employment opportunities not only for Sikhs, but for all religious minorities.
Discriminated Because of His Faith
"I feel vindicated," said Mr. Oberoi.
"I wanted to serve and, as a qualified candidate, I thought the job would be a great fit. I was shocked at how I was treated.""This ruling is a victory not only for Mr. Oberoi, but for all applicants of faith who seek correctional officer positions with the state," said Ms. Dhillon.
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Trilochan S. Oberoi has never cut his hair (including facial hair), in accordance with the mandates of his Sikh faith. He served 26 years in India's Navy and 10 years in the Merchant Marines before immigrating to Folsom, CA in 2001. During his years of service, his beard never impeded his ability to use a gasmask.
When Mr. Oberoi applied to work as a correctional officer, CDCR told him that he must appear clean-shaven in order to take a gasmask fit test. According to the agency, correctional officers cannot wear gasmasks properly unless they are clean-shaven. When Mr. Oberoi refused, CDCR denied him the position. In an effort to safeguard his rights,Mr. Oberoi responded by first filing a complaint with California's State Personnel Board (SPB) and then contacting the Sikh Coalition.
Sikh Coalition Intervenes
The Coalition agreed to take the case, and enlisted attorney Harmeet K. Dhillon of Dhillon & Smith LLP in San Francisco, CA to jointly represent Mr. Oberoi. Although Mr. Oberoi attempted to voluntarily settle with CDCR, these efforts failed. Therefore, the SPB held a two-day administrative trial in June of 2008, hearing evidence from both sides. Ms. Dhillon and the Coalition's Legal Director represented Mr. Oberoi at trial.
On November 18, 2008, the SPB decided in Mr. Oberoi's favor. Under California's anti-discrimination laws, when an applicant's religious practice conflicts with a job requirement, an employer is required to a) explore possible accommodations, and b) provide a reasonable accommodation, absent undue hardship. The court found that CDCR had discriminated against Mr. Oberoi by refusing to even attempt to explore possible accommodations for Mr. Oberoi's unshorn beard. The court believed that accommodations for bearded applicants were available because CDCR provides employees with medical-based exemptions to its no-beard rule.
"The court understood that CDCR's policy is inconsistent," said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director of the Sikh Coalition. "On the one hand, CDCR maintains that all correctional officer applicants must be clean-shaven for a gasmask fit test. On the other hand, they provide exceptions for those already employed. The inconsistency was evidence of discrimination."
Under the ruling, if Mr. Oberoi renews his application, CDCR must make good faith attempts to accommodate his religiously-mandated beard. Specifically, CDCR must attempt to accommodate Mr. Oberoi's beard in the same manner it accommodates the beards of correctional officer employees.
The Sikh Coalition urges all Sikhs to practice their faith fearlessly. If someone tells you to remove your articles of faith, please report the incident.