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May 11, 1999


Turban Victory Draws Attention To A 25-Year-Old New York Organization

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A Staff Writer

When Princeton University computer science Professor Jaswinder Pal Singh settled recently his federal law suit against El Quijote, the swanky Manhattan restaurant that had refused him service because he wore a turban, he felt deeply within himself that yet another small victory has been achieved against discrimination in America.

His victory was also a boost to The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund that had fought the case against the restaurant. The 25-year-old AALDEF indeed have a sweet anniversary gift in Singh's victory.

"With the great racial and cultural diversity of New York City, there is no reason for any restaurant to display such religious intolerance toward Sikhs," AALDEF executive director Margaret Fung said,

She added that AALDEF would bring other legal challenges against businesses or facilities that discriminate against Sikhs.

AALDEF is the first organization on the East Coast to protect and promote the legal rights of Asian Americans through litigation, legal advocacy and community education.

Among its most visible workers is attorney Tito Sinha who, among other things, through personal appearances at schools and universities, community organizations and newspapers urges the Indian community to get involved in social causes that affect ordinary people of all origins but specially Asian Americans.

"We see a number of young people of Indian origin showing interest in grass-root activism," he says. "But we need many more. We need to make our presence felt at the school boards, at the voter registration drive, at demonstration against racial violence and bigotry," Sinha said.

He hopes the examples set by young Indian Americans would galvanize their parents into social activisim.

Founded in 1974, AALDEF focuses on the critical issues facing Asian Americans, including immigrant rights, voting rights, economic justice for workers, language rights, affirmative action and the elimination of anti-Asian violence and police brutality.

The lawsuit was filed in December 1996 after Singh had been thrown out of El Quijote restaurant for refusing to remove his turban. The restaurant had a policy of not allowing people with a hat

Singh says he had explained the religious significance of the turban to restaurant employees when they had asked him to remove it. Despite this, Singh and his Italian-born wife were told to leave the restaurant. The lawsuit was filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the New York Civil Liberties Union. The story was telecast by top television stations and many newspapers including The New York Times wrote lengthy articles about the incident and the law suit.

"I am happy that the restaurant has finally changed its rule that effectively barred Sikhs," said Professor Singh. "It was humiliating to be asked to leave the restaurant for practicing my religion. I hope this settlement will deter other restaurants and facilities from having such offensive rules."

There have been many anecdotal reports from different parts of America about turbaned Sikhs been indifferently treated in expensive restaurants or simply told that they have to wait for an hour for a table even on a weekday when a restaurant is not fully booked.

The settlement requires that El Quijote restaurant serve all persons who wear turbans or other headgear for religious reasons, that the restaurant's sign declaring the "No Headgear" policy be amended to reflect this understanding, and that the restaurant pay $ 10,000 in damages to Professor Singh. The professor has donated the proceeds from the case to charity.

The lawsuit was brought under federal, state and city human rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion by restaurants and other public accommodations.

At the AALDEF anniversary celebration, attended by 800 civil rights, arts and business leaders, Loida Nicolas Lewis, CEO of TLC Beatrice International, and Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, were honored last month.

Glasser and Lewis were founding board members of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier, the first tenured woman of color at the law school, and Faye Wattleton, former Planned Parenthood Federation executive director, presented the 1999 Justice in Action awards. Korean American broadcast journalist Juju Chang, anchor of ABC World News This Morning, was the event emcee.

Some notable attendees included: Former New York mayor David Dinkins; New York Public Advocate Mark Green; actor Garrett Wang (Star Trek Voyager), author Jessica Hagedorn, lawfirm partners Rajiv Khanna (Siley & Austin) and Vijay Tata (Arnold & Porter) , National Minority Supplier Development Council CEO Harriet Michel, National Conference for Community and Justice President director Sanford Cloud, WNBC General Manager Dennis Swanson, Carolyn Fugett, mother of Reginald Lewis, and Leslie Lewis, daughter of Reginald and Loida.

Special entertainment was provided by South Asian DJ Rekha,The Dave Glasser Quartet, and the Filipino Folklorico Dance Company of New York. Lewis, dressed in a traditional Filipino gown, accepted her award by first giving thanks to her late husband Reginald F Lewis, who "through sheer daring broke through that highly selective game of high finance...and created the largest Black-owned business in the United States." She noted that as the nation becomes more diverse and multicultural, with one in four New Yorkers being foreign-born, "we need to be more understanding and more tolerant. We have to listen to one another better than any other generation before us."

Glasser referred to recent incidents of police misconduct, in which African Americans and other people of color have been stopped on the street and their cars pulled over and searched, solely because of their skin color and national origin. He said that Asian Americans should be concerned when the police target people based on race, because the first targets of such violations are never the last.

At the close of the evening, special messages were given by Japanese American activist Gordon Hirabayashi. The 81-year old Hirabayashi, who was imprisoned for resisting curfew and exclusion orders during World War II and succeeded in overturning his conviction 40 years later, announced the creation of the Hirabayashi Social Justice Fellowship at AALDEF, to encourage legal activism among young lawyers.

"AALDEF is one of the few groups that is willing to speak out in the face of opposition. That is what needs to be encouraged and nurtured. People cannot be complacent about their freedoms. I know this from personal experience."

Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang also spoke about AALDEF's pivotal role in shaping the civil rights of Asian Americans across the nation and as part of the broader civil rights movement.

After the event, AALDEF executive director Margaret Fung said, "This celebration was an opportunity to thank the many individuals who have been a part of AALDEF over the past quarter century. With this tremendous cross-section of support from so many lawyers, business leaders, artists and community activists, we can all look forward to continuing the fight for racial and economic justice for the next 25 years."

Several corporations pledged major support for AALDEF in honor of the 25th anniversary, including AT&T, Anheuser-Busch Companies, Bell Atlantic Foundation, Con Edison, Goldman Sachs & Co., The Reginald F Lewis Foundation, and TLC Beatrice International.

For more information, contact Tito Sinha, Claire Hsiang or Margaret Fung, (212) 966-5932.

If you would like to post any information about forthcoming events or community happenings, please email the details to

Information and photographs can also be mailed to Betty Pais at 87-52 108th Street, 2nd Floor, Richmond Hill, NY 11418-2229, USA

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