WASHINGTON — The United States on Monday defended late-night TV host Jay Leno's right to free speech after India said it would protest a gag that involved Sikhism's holiest shrine.
Sikh activists voiced outrage after Leno showed a photo of the ornate Golden Temple in Amritsar, joking it was the summer home of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose handling of his personal fortune has become a campaign issue.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the United States has not had any communication with India on the issue but noted that the US Constitution strictly protects freedom of speech.
"I hope (Leno will) be appreciative if we make the point that his comments are constitutionally protected in the United States under free speech and, frankly, they appeared to be satirical in nature," Nuland told reporters.
Nuland said that the United States has "absolute respect" for all Indians including Sikhs, noting that Barack Obama was the first president to celebrate the birthday of the religion's founder Guru Nanak at the White House.
"Our view is obviously that Sikh Americans have contributed greatly to the United States," she said.
An online petition by Sikh Americans protested Leno's "derogatory depiction" of the Golden Temple and said that his "racist comments need to be stopped here."
Vayalar Ravi, the minister for overseas Indian affairs, called Leno's gag "quite unfortunate and quite objectionable" and said that New Delhi would raise the issue through diplomatic channels.
Suhel Seth, a prominent Indian media commentator, accused the government of lacking a sense of humor and focusing on trivial issues.
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