Muslim and Sikh employees of New York's transit system will now be able to wear their religious headgear freely, without attaching a government agency logo to them, in a major legal victory after new uniform rules were imposed following the 9/11 attacks.
The US Justice Department on Wednesday reached a settlement with the New York City Transit Authority eight years after it had filed a complaint in September 2004 in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York alleging that NYCTA engaged in a pattern of religious discrimination.
Under the agreement, the NYCTA would be required to adopt new uniform headwear 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 headwear. MTA is the parent agency for the rail and bus operator 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 headwear.
The deal also allows Sikh MTA workers to wear turbans as long as they match the blue colour of the MTA uniform. 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 Department of Justice 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."
The MTA had enforced after the 9/11 attacks, Sikh and Muslim workers were forced to either brand their religious headdress with the agency's logo or forced to work out of public view. The MTA had cited security concerns after 9/11 as the reason for its "brand or segregate" policy and insisted the new policy was necessary despite Sikh and Muslim employees working successfully at 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 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," 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," Singh, a Sikh train operator, said.
Another plaintiff Inderjit Singh said he had worked as a station agent for more than a decade before 9/11. "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," he said.
In March 2005, a US Justice Department investigation found over 200 instances of MTA employees wearing headdress without an MTA logo during three days of inspection. The Justice Department filed its own suit against the MTA in September 2004 and primarily led the litigation.
In July 2005, groups like the Sikh Coalition and the Centre for Constitutional Rights filed discrimination charges on behalf of six Sikh plaintiffs.
In a statement, the MTA said its rules had been "reasonable" and "never animated by religious or ethnic bias."
The transit agency said 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."
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".