The U.S. State Department has stepped into the controversy over talk show host Jay Leno who offended Sikhs in a skit on the “Tonight Show” by citing his free speech rights.

During the January broadcast of the late night program, the famed Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest shrine to Sikhs, was depicted as being the summer vacation home of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, suggesting that the former Massachusetts governor is hiding money in offshore tax havens. The “joke” also implied that the temple is a home for the wealthy, rather than a religious shrine.

The Indian government condemned Leno and some Sikhs in the U.S. have launched an online petition against the NBC comedian.

Vayalar Ravi, India’s overseas affairs minister, earlier said: It is quite unfortunate and quite objectionable that such a comment has been made after showing the Golden Temple.

However, Victoria Nuland, a spokesman for the US State Department, told reporters: 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.”

She added that the U.S. had absolute respect for all Indians, including Sikhs, and noted that President Barack Obama was the first American president to celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, at the White House.

Our view is obviously that Sikh Americans have contributed greatly to the United States, she said.

Leno himself has not yet commented on the controversy.

Apparently, if no apology from either Leno or NBC is forthcoming, many Sikhs in the U.S. will likely remain incensed.

A Sikh named Simran Kaur wrote on the Facebook petition: Jay Leno must apologize and promise not to make any direct or oblique references to Sikhs or their places of worship.

Another wrote: “This derogatory depiction of Sri Darbar Sahib [Golden Temple], as the home of rich, is contrary to the reality and hurtful to the sentiments of the Sikhs.”

Navi Kaur similarly lamented on Facebook: “The Sikh community is very offended that you showed the Golden Temple as Mitt [Romney’s] summer home -- it is a religious shrine and should be respected and not made fun off. I have never seen you show any other religious shrine as a summer home of a presidential candidate. I think there needs to be a formal apology for what you did.”

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