Turban object of Sikh's lawsuit

Yuba County, USA - A devout Sikh from Union City being held in a Northern California detention center while awaiting the outcome of a political asylum request sued his jailers in federal court Wednesday for refusing to allow him to openly wear a turban.

Harpal Singh Cheema, 47, says his religious freedom is being violated by Yuba County's jail staff, which restricts his use of head covering.

Under a 2002 agreement that he signed, Cheema can wear a turban only at his bed -- as long as he's praying, reading a religious book or eating, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and Wilson Sonsini law firm in Palo Alto.

A spokeswoman for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, whose employees are named in the suit, said the matter could have been resolved had Cheema agreed to be transferred to a federal facility.

Yuba County Sheriff Virginia Black, listed as a defendant, declined to comment on the suit or discuss the jail policy on religious head wear. Co-defendant Mark Chandless, the jail captain, did not return a telephone call.

Some jails across the country, including those in Santa Clara County, prohibit turbans out of fear that weapons could be hidden inside.

``The person is told respectfully that we understand their concerns, but it is a safety and security issue,'' jails spokesman Mark Cursi said. The same jails accommodate religious adherents who have dietary restrictions, and Muslims are given an extra sheet, blanket or towel to kneel for prayer, he said.

Cursi said the turban restriction ``hasn't been an issue here.''

It has been in other places, said Manjit Singh, co-founder of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which teaches law enforcement authorities about the ancient religion.

``We understand that an inmate doesn't have the rights and privileges of any other regular resident of the United States, but at the same time the right to practice their faith is not something that is negotiable,'' Singh said.

In an effort to balance religious freedom with security issues, his non-profit group has suggested that Sikhs wear turbans made of shorter cloth and turbans that match the color of jail uniforms.

Cheema, who was an attorney in his native India, and a Sikh activist in the Bay Area, has been in detention since 1997, awaiting a hearing on his asylum case from the federal Bureau of Immigration Appeals. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, contracts with jails, such as the one in Yuba County, to hold inmates awaiting court proceedings.

Cheema's attorneys allege that because he is being held for federal authorities, Yuba County should comply with national detention standards, which allow turbans.

``Being able to keep his head covered is such an important aspect of how he fulfills his religious obligation, that being held under these circumstances has been very demoralizing for him, very upsetting,'' said Robin Goldfaden, a staff attorney for the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project in Oakland.

A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Virginia Kice, said the agency offered to move Cheema to a federal detention facility.

Goldfaden said Cheema has been transferred several times the past eight years, and another move would impose hardship.