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Sikh, Muslim transit workers settle federal lawsuit

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 5/30/2012, 6:33 p.m.

On Tuesday, Sikh and Muslim transit workers settled a seven-year federal lawsuit that challenged a post-9/11 policy that kept their religious garments out of public view. Sikh and Muslim workers can now wear a religious headdress freely without fear of reprimand, segregation or discipline as they were able to before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

As a result of the settlement, the new policy would allow Sikh employees to wear turbans as long as they match the color of the MTA uniform, which is blue.

The MTA's lawyers said that the MTA felt there were security concerns at hand in a post-9/11 atmosphere that would've affected how Sikh and Muslim employees went about their business. The issue in court was whether the MTA was allowed to ban religious headwear in this way.

Amardeep Singh, program director of the Sikh Coalition, approved of the federal court's decision.

"We're glad that this sad chapter in our city's reaction to 9/11 has come to an end," said Singh. "Innocent Sikh and Muslim workers were essentially punished and segregated for the events of that day. We are ready to turn the page now and are particularly pleased that procedures are in place that better protect the rights of all, not just Muslims and Sikhs, at the MTA."

Back in July of 2005, the Sikh Coalition, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Bhalla & Cho LLC filed discrimination charges on behalf of six Sikh plaintiffs after four Muslim plaintiffs had already filed similar suits against the MTA. In March 2005, a U.S. Justice Department investigation found over 200 occurrences of MTA employees wearing a headdress without an MTA logo during the three-day span of inspection. The Justice Department filed its own suit against the MTA the year before and led the litigation

Sikh and Muslim employees were also ecstatic with the ruling.

"I am relieved that the policy of branding or segregating Sikh or Muslim workers is coming to an end," said Sat Hari Singh, aka Kevin Harrington, a Sikh train operator. "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.' I didn't have a corporate logo on my turban on 9/11. This policy made no sense. It was driven by fear. I'm glad it has come to an end." Singh was a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Inderjit Singh, a Sikh station agent and another plaintiff in the lawsuit, expressed similar sentiments. "I worked as a station agent for more than a decade before 9/11," he said. "My turban never interfered with my work in any way. I'm happy that I can do my job now without having to worry about this policy hanging over me."

The MTA sent a statement to the AmNews, which read: "MTA New York City Transit [NYCT] and the U.S. Department of Justice today settled a 2004 lawsuit that alleged the headwear policies of NYCT failed to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of a small group of station agents and bus and train operators.

"The settlement contains no finding of fault or liability. It agrees to modify the headwear portion of the NYCT uniform policy to permit employees in those titles to wear turbans, headscarves and certain other forms of headwear that do not contain the standard NYCT-issued logo, but are in the standard NYCT blue color.

"In addition, under the settlement, NYCT is clarifying the current procedures by which employees may apply for certain kinds of religious accommodations," the statement concluded.