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Sikh Coalition campaigns for Ozone Park traffic cop

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A national coalition of more than 50 Sikh organizations has launched a campaign to challenge the NYPD’s no-turban rule, demanding that fired Ozone Park traffic cop Amric Singh Rathour be given his job back.

Rathour was fired from his position as a probationary traffic enforcement agent in August because he refused to shave his beard and remove his turban. Unshorn hair and the wrapped head covering are requirements of his religion.

In response to a January story in the TimesLedger detailing Rathour’s case, the New York-based Sikh Coalition contacted the fired cop and started the drive to abolish the no-turban regulation they say effectively bars Sikhs from serving in the NYPD. As of Tuesday, the coalition had collected nearly 4,500 signatures on a petition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg at www.petitiononline.com/SikhNYPD/petition.html.

“This is not about the job,” Rathour said of the campaign. “It’s about the right to practice my religion. “Wearing a turban doesn’t prevent me from doing my job. It doesn’t handicap me in any way.”

Detective Walter Burns, an NYPD spokesman, would not comment on the reasons for the no-turban rule. He repeatedly said Rathour was fired because he did not follow the instructions of the Police Department.

“He was given a direct order that he had to wear his uniform hat and he didn’t do that so he was fired for that reason,” Burns said. “He was asked to follow the rules and regulations of the department and because he wasn’t able to do that he was terminated.”

During a hearing with the Police Department’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity in July, Rathour was told by Lt. Mark Henig that his beard would have to be “trimmed to one millimeter in length” and his turban “would have to be small” and “fit underneath the uniform hat,” according to a transcript of the meeting obtained by the TimesLedger.

“That is what the department allows with other religious accommodat­ions,” Henig said, speaking of the trimmed beard. “There are officers on this job that we give religious accommodations to, and the standard we ask them to go by is one millimeter, which is basically a trimmed beard.”

The one millimeter rule is a recommendation of Imam Pasha, a Muslim religious leader, but Rathour said Sikhism does not adhere to the same tenets as Islam.

The Sikh Coalition has hired New Jersey lawyer Ravinder Bhalla, who said he is hoping to settle the case out of court.

“I think it’s clear that his constitutional and civil rights have been violated,” said Bhalla. “The problem we have with the policy is its effect is to shut the door on any qualifying Sikh who may wish to serve in the NYPD and stay true to his religious beliefs at the same time.”

Bhalla is calling for Rathour to be reinstated immediately with permission to wear his turban and maintain his uncut beard. If a settlement cannot be reached, he is fully prepared to file a discrimination lawsuit.

“If this thing went to court, it would be a slam dunk for Amric,” he said. “I hope we don’t have to do that, but we’re fully prepared to litigate it.”

In 1990, Baltej Singh Dhillon, a Sikh member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, successfully challenged the Mounties in court for their refusal to allow him to wear his turban as part of his uniform.

In 1999, two Sunni Muslim police officers who wanted to keep their beards won a suit against the City of Newark. The case went up the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court’s ruling that a ban on beards would violate the officers’ freedom of religion.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had ruled that if the Police Department granted medical exceptions that allow beards, it could not deny a religious accommodation request. Medical exemptions are the only exceptions granted by the NYPD for facial hair beyond one millimeter, Burns told the TimesLedger in January.

Law enforcement officials around the country said they would welcome turbaned Sikhs into their departments. Sheriff Leroy Baca, head of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department, said in a recent public meeting that Sikhs should join his department, said Sgt. Kimberly Unland, a spokeswoman for the sheriff.

“He encouraged Sikhs to become members of our department,” she said, adding that Baca “would not have a problem” with Sikhs serving with their turbans.

Rathour is at least the second Sikh to run into trouble with the NYPD’s dress code in the last year. The department also denied a request by Jasjit Singh Jaggi, a Richmond Hill resident, to wear his turban.

Jaggi, who was the valedictorian at a recent traffic enforcement graduation ceremony, rides the subway to work each day wearing a turban, and when he arrives on the job, removes that symbol of his religion, replacing it with an NYPD cap.

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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