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Aseem Chhabra in New York
Faced with the threat of a lawsuit from a 15-year-old Sikh teenager, a New Jersey club has modified its 'no hats allowed' policy.
In a settlement between Sarab Thapar, a West Orange teenager, and the Groove Lounge in Lyndhurst, the club said its hat policy would not apply to members of a religious faith.
"Our goal was not to get a monetary recovery," said Thapar's attorney Ravinder Singh Bhalla. "Our goal was to get the policy changed, to get more public awareness about the Sikh community, and to hopefully prevent some of these misunderstandings in future."
Four months ago, on a Saturday night, Thapar left home with a group of friends for what was supposed to be his first visit to a dance club. The event at the Groove Lounge was advertised as a 'Teen Night Home Party'.
At the entrance to the club, Thapar was stopped by a bouncer who wanted him to take off his 'hat'. Thapar tried to explain that the 'hat' was actually a patka, a headdress that he wears because he is a Sikh.
"The bouncer was totally ignorant," Thapar said after the July 20 settlement. "He didn't even want to listen. He didn't even try to make an attempt. It was his way or get out."
Embarrassed and humiliated, Sarab Thapar left the club with a couple of his friends. His father Sonny Thapar then approached Bhalla, an attorney with Krovatin & Associates, a law firm in Newark, New Jersey.
Bhalla is also a legal adviser to Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force (SMART), a Germantown, Maryland, based non-profit group that works towards the accurate portrayal of Sikhs in the American media and to protect their religious rights in the country.
Bhalla said the Groove Lounge had violated Thapar's civil rights under Title II of the federal Civil Rights Act, 1964, and New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination.
"We were prepared to file a lawsuit, but before doing that we made an attempt to reach out to club's owner and to resolve the dispute amicably," Bhalla said.
Bhalla's letter to Ronald Gastelu, Jr, owner of the Groove Lounge, finally resulted in the settlement agreement.
"My client certainly did not intend to discriminate against Mr Thapar," said Gastelu's attorney John Ambrosio, who practises with a Lyndhurst, NJ, law firm. "My client was not aware when this was going on. He wasn't present there. When he found out what had happened, he corrected the situation."
Gastelu was not available for comment. A recorded message in the Groove Lounge's machine now says: "Guys are not allowed to wear hats, hoods or durags, unless for religious purposes."
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