On July 15, 2005 in New York, five Sikh Station Agents announced their intention to file discrimination charges against the MTA. The Sikh workers charge that a post-9/11 policy requiring them to brand their turbans with an MTA logo amounts to religious discrimination.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Sikh Coalition filed discrimination charges on behalf of the men with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this morning. CCR and the Coalition also filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of Kevin Harrington, a Sikh subway train operator who has been forced to wear an MTA logo on his turban since January.
“The MTA honored me for driving my train in reverse away from the towers on 9/11 and leading passengers to safety. They called me a ‘hero of 9/11,’” said plaintiff Kevin Harrington. “I didn’t have a corporate logo on my turban then. Why am I being threatened with reassignment in a rail yard unless I wear one now? I see MTA workers wearing Yankees caps, fashion headwear, and yarmulkes. Why are they only picking on Sikhs and Muslims?”
A federal Justice Department investigation found over 200 instances of MTA employees wearing headdress without an MTA logo over the course of three days in January and February. This included MTA-issued Russian-style winter hats without a logo. The Justice Department filed its own discrimination suit against the MTA last September.
“The MTA issues hats to its workers without its corporate logo. It smacks of discrimination to create special rules for Sikhs and Muslims that don’t apply to anyone else,” said Amardeep Singh, Legal Director of the Sikh Coalition.
“The new MTA policy addresses a nonexistent problem. Kevin led his passengers to safety during the 9/11 attacks, and no one had problems recognizing him as an MTA employee then. And no passenger is going to be confused about whether a station agent sitting in a token booth works for the MTA, either,” said Shayana Kadidal, staff attorney at CCR.
The trouble between the MTA and its Sikh employees began in June 2004 when the MTA ordered Mr. Harrington to either remove his turban or be reassigned to an MTA rail yard. Mr. Harrington had worked for the MTA for more than two decades prior to the new order.
After reconsideration of its policy, the MTA allowed Sikhs to wear turbans last fall. Nevertheless, its new policy required Sikh and Muslim employees to brand their religious headdresses with its logo. Mr. Harrington has complied with the policy under protest and fear of reassignment to an MTA rail yard.
"The decision by the MTA to obstruct the religious practices of its Sikh employees is wholly unacceptable," said Congressman Anthony Weiner, who authored the Workplace Religious Freedom Act in the U.S. Congress, which protects the rights of employees to wear clothing required by their religious faith. "All New Yorkers deserve the dignity of being able to freely practice their religion in the workplace."
The MTA expanded the scope of its turban-branding policy in April 2005, when it issued turbans and logos to five Sikh station agents, Inderjit Singh, Jatinderpaul Singh Attari, Trilok Singh Arora, Satinder Singh Arora and Brijinder Singh Gill. Ironically, the MTA issued them on or around April 14, when Sikhs around the world celebrate Vaisakhi. Sikhism’s founders ordered Sikhs to wear turbans as part of their religious faith on Vaisakhi in the year 1699.
“I have worked as a station agent for more than a decade. I have never worn a logo on my turban. My turban has never interfered in my work in any way. I just want to do my job as I have for the past decade,” said Inderjit Singh a Sikh station agent.
New York City Councilmember David Weprin introduced a bill this past March that would bar discrimination in city agencies on the basis of religious headdress. Discrimination at the MTA and New York City Police Department against Sikh and Muslim workers spurred its introduction. The bill currently has twenty-two cosponsors.
"We cannot and will not stand for discrimination against certain public employees in our public agencies," said New York City Council Member David I. Weprin. "I do not believe it to be unreasonable to ask that the MTA respect the practices of different religions by not directing that in order for an employee to retain his or her job, he or she must disrepect a piece of religious garb."
Suits have also been filed by Muslim bus drivers alleging discrimination. The MTA would not allow the Muslim bus drivers to return to their regular public facing positions unless they removed their headscarves.
Started as an effort to educate the greater North American community on Sikhs and Sikhism, the Sikh Coalition works to safeguard the civil and human rights of all people and communicate the collective interests of Sikhs to civil society. The Coalition serves as a resource on Sikhs and Sikh concerns for governments, organizations and individuals.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is a non-profit legal and educational organization dedicated to protecting and advancing the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Center has worked closely with the South Asian and Sikh communities on numerous immigration, bias and civil rights issues in the wake of 9/11.