As a Sikh Woman of Color and Child of Immigrants, I Found Gorsuch’s Vague Answers Troubling
By Poonam Sidhu, NILC communications intern
APRIL 6, 2017
“What worries me is that you have been very much able to avoid any specificity like no one I have ever seen before,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said on day three of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Senate.
As I sat at the back of the hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building that day, I couldn’t help but echo the same concerns that Feinstein had about Gorsuch.
Even though I was sitting in the farthest reaches of the hearing room and could make out only the back of Gorsuch’s head, I still had a good view of the senators who were seated in front of him. They were surveying Gorsuch keenly, noting his mannerisms and any idiosyncrasies in his behavior or any inconsistencies in his responses that were of a questionable nature. I remember thinking how anxiety-inducing it must be for the nominee to sit there and be grilled for eight consecutive hours.
Throughout all the grilling, Gorsuch remained very steadfast in reinforcing his commitment to abide by the principle of neutrality. This was demonstrated through his refusal to opine and offer any real insight into his own judicial philosophy when prompted by the different senators. As a Sikh woman of color and a child of Indian immigrants, I found this to be particularly vexing.
When Senator Patrick Leahy asked Gorsuch if a blanket religious test is consistent with the First Amendment, I noticed how vague his response was, and it almost made me choke. “If you are asking about how to apply it to a specific case, I can’t talk about that for understandable reasons. You ask me to apply it to a set of facts that look an awful lot like a pending case in many circuits now,” Gorsuch answered.
In March, we witnessed two incidents that directly involved and targeted Sikh Americans. In one of them, a Sikh man wearing a turban, Deep Rai, was shot in the arm by a man who reportedly told him, “Go back to your own country!” Fortunately, the injury he sustained was minor, and he was released from the hospital after only a short stay. In another case, Rajpreet Heir, an American-born Sikh woman riding on a New York subway, was verbally harassed and told to go “back to Lebanon.”
In a time when Sikhs are also being racially profiled because of our skin and religion, we need to recognize that the religious-based ban on people entering the United States not only directly affects Muslims, it impacts other people of color too. Racism seems to be manifesting in a much more visible and accepted way now in the U.S. than it has for many years. If to someone you look like the “other,” they may feel completely justified in equating you with a terrorist or seeing—and labeling—you as a potential danger to our nation’s security.
Gorsuch’s vague response to Leahy’s question—which gave the nominee a chance to share his views about the moral and civil implications of banning people from the U.S. based on their religion—demonstrated his cowardice in the face of an issue that currently is causing much fear and discomfort, especially in people whom our president has targeted for disparate treatment. In a troubling time when racial and religious animus against Muslims openly manifests as official government policy promulgated by executive order, and when the executive orders establishing the policy are likely to be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, we are entitled to know if and how Gorsuch will protect all Americans’—and would-be Americans’—basic First Amendment right to practice our religion freely.