In a major legal victory after new uniform rules were imposed following the 9/11 attacks, Sikh and Muslim employees of New York's transit system will now be able to wear their religious headgear freely, without attaching a government agency logo to it.
The US justice department on Wednesday reached a settlement with the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) eight years after it had filed a complaint in September 2004 in the US district court for the eastern district of New York, alleging that the NYCTA had indulged in religious discrimination.
Under the agreement, the NYCTA would be required to adopt new uniform headgear policies, allowing employees working in public-contact positions, like operating buses and subways, to wear khimars, yarmulkes, turbans, kufis, skullcaps, tams and headscarves without attaching the logo of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to the headgear. The MTA is the parent agency for the rail and bus operator, the NYCTA.
The NYCTA would also pay $184,500 to eight of its current and former employees, some of them Sikhs and Muslims, who had alleged employment discrimination after they refused to adhere to attach logos to their headgear.
The deal also allows Sikh MTA workers to wear turbans as long as they match the blue colour of the MTA uniform. The MTA management and other employees will receive extensive training on the new policy, according to the settlement.
"This settlement agreement sends a clear message that the justice department will not tolerate religious discrimination," assistant attorney general for the civil rights division Thomas Perez said in a statement.
"I am pleased that the NYCTA has agreed to end its discriminatory practices, that for years have forced employees to choose between practicing their religion and maintaining their jobs," Perez added.
After the 9/11 attacks, Sikh and Muslim workers were forced to brand their religious headdress with the agency's logo or work out of public view. The MTA had cited security concerns after the 9/11 attacks as the reason for its 'brand or segregate' policy and insisted that the new policy was necessary, despite Sikh and Muslim employees working successfully at the transit authority for decades.
Beginning in March 2002, the agency began to selectively enforce the new headgear policies against Muslim and Sikh employees.
The Sikh Coalition hailed the judgment, saying that Sikh and Muslim workers would now be able to wear their religious headdress freely as they did before 9/11 - without fear of segregation or discipline.
"We're glad that this sad chapter in our city's reaction to 9/11 has come to an end," said Amardeep Singh, programme director of the Sikh Coalition.
"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," Amardeep Singh said.
"I am relieved that the policy of branding or segregating Sikh or Muslim workers is coming to an end," said plaintiff Sat Hari Singh, who also went by the name of Kevin Harrington.
"The MTA honoured 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," said Sat Hari Singh, a Sikh train operator.
Shayana Kadidal, a senior managing attorney at the Centre for Constitutional Rights, said the MTA's proposal to brand workers' turbans with a corporate logo was 'unacceptable'.