Sikhs Object to MTA Logo Requirement

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A number of employees of New York City's Transit Authority are angry because they are being made to wear an MTA logo on their turbans. The men, members of the Sikh religion, say they are being singled out for special and degrading treatment.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

For male members of the Sikh faith, wearing a turban is an essential part of their religion. But that can cause conflicts with employers who require a certain uniform on the job. In New York City, Sikhs who work for the MTA, which runs the city's subway system, have refused to wear an MTA logo on their turbans. Five token booth clerks have filed federal discrimination complaints and a subway motorman has sued the transit system. NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

At the Woodlawn Station in the Bronx, a number 4 subway train driven by Kevin Harrington pulls up to the platform.

(Soundbite of train)

Unidentified Man: This is the last stop on this train. Thank you for riding with MTA, New York City transit.

SMITH: The first thing Harrington does now that this motorman shift is over is to remove a silver-dollar sized MTA patch from his dark blue turban.

Mr. KEVIN HARRINGTON (MTA Motorman): I'm wearing it under duress. They threatened to fire me if I didn't wear it.

SMITH: For almost 20 years now, Harrington has driven a train wearing his turban without a logo and without question from his bosses. In fact, he was praised for his work when on September 11th he threw his number four train into reverse to get his passengers away from the collapsing World Trade Center towers. But Harrington says things changed last year. He was initially ordered to remove his turban while driving. MTA officials told him it could cause confusion among the passengers who might not recognize him as an employee.

Mr. HARRINGTON: Well, it's degrading because, like, they're singling you out for special treatment as though I'm some sort of unique individual who is like--who the public doesn't want to see because I inspire fear in them as though I'm some sort of terrorist. You know, and they were sort of like equating me wearing the turban with something ominous.

SMITH: The MTA later agreed to allow the turban, but only if the MTA patch was affixed to the front. For Harrington, it's offensive.

Mr. HARRINGTON: The turban is a religious symbol and it's not a billboard.

SMITH: But since the terrorist attacks on September 11th, the turban has made Sikhs a visible target for discrimination. They say many people mistake the turban and the beard and the dark skin as a sign that they're Muslim or Arab. In fact, Sikhism started out in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, and is distinct from Islam or Hinduism. The religion requires that men always keep their hair covered by a cloth, sometimes eight yards long, that they wrap into a turban. In the last few years, Sikhs have fought legal battles to be allowed to wear the turban in schools, in jails and in the workplace.

Yesterday, Harrington filed a federal lawsuit challenging the requirement that he wear an MTA logo on his turban. He was joined by five other Sikhs who work as token booth clerks and say they've been subjected to the same restrictions. Inderjit Singh, who works a booth on the A line at 42nd Street, says he refused.

Mr. INDERJIT SINGH (MTA Employee): As a Sikh religious man, I cannot put anything on my turban. It's like that, if they ask any Christian--they ask the Christian, `On the cross, you put the MTA logo on the cross.' It's the same thing for me.

SMITH: The Transit Authority says they will not comment on pending litigation. In the past, however, they've called the patch requirement a fair compromise, and legally employers only have to make reasonable accommodations for religious practices. David Gregory teaches employment law at St. John's University in New York.

Mr. DAVID GREGORY (St. John's University): The employer would say, in the case that you pose, `Look, I'm making a major concession to the employee allowing him to wear his turban. And there should be a quid pro quo and he should be identified to the public as an MTA employee.'

SMITH: But Gregory says the MTA will have to show that the Sikh employees are not being unfairly singled out for enforcement of the uniform rules and that's where the Sikhs feel they have a good case. Employees of the subway system can routinely be seen wearing Yankees or Mets or Nike caps. A federal discrimination investigation earlier this year found more than 200 instances where MTA employees were wearing caps without a logo. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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