Sikh settles discrimination lawsuit with state over beard

October 27, 2011 6:03:49 PM PDT
A Northern California man won his battle for a job: All it took was six years and $500,000 of taxpayer money.

When Trilochan Oberoi applied for a job as a California prison guard, he never imagined the job would come with a $295,000 settlement. That settlement is getting paid out to Oberoi before he shows up for his first day on the job.

Oberoi was 59 when he first applied for a job as a California prison guard. There was a battery of questions and tests that came with the application.

"They wanted me to finish my GED," Oberoi said. "On the contrary, I had a bachelor's degree, but I did it."

Oberoi spoke with ABC7 from his home in Folsom, near Sacramento, where he explained he passed every test except the one they didn't give him: The Department of Corrections wanted him to take a gas mask test to make sure he could wear one just in case, but first they insisted that he shave his beard.

"The wearing of the beard, keeping hair, is part of my religion," Oberoi said.

As a Sikh, Oberoi's beard is an expression of his religious faith -- to cut it off would make him a non-Sikh. For six years, Oberoi and his attorney battled the state, winning one decision after the next.

"We tried to explain to them the United States Constitution and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires them to make a reasonable accommodation for someone who has a bona fide religious belief," Oberoi's attorney Harmeet Dhillon said. "They just refused to listen."

This summer, the state finally found out it was being investigated by the federal government over the handling of Oberoi's case, and Attorney General Kamala Harris' office reached a settlement with Oberoi: $295,000 and a job that he will start next week.

A spokesperson for Harris said she wasn't prepared to speak with ABC7 News on camera about the Oberoi case, but Johnathan Wolff, the department's supervising deputy attorney general, was.

"We are delighted that our clients have settled and we look forward to Mr. Oberoi working in his new job," Wolff said.

When asked why it took so long to reach a settlement, Wolff said he couldn't answer "because of attorney-client communications."

ABC7 asked the California Department of Corrections for comment on the settlement and an explanation, but we have yet to hear back from them. The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights division is investigating the way the Department of Corrections is handling the case.


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