Sikh sues Ind. airport bus co. for discrimination

AP News
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Posted: Dec 03, 2009 3:20 PM

A Sikh man sued an Atlanta-based company that provides shuttlebus service at Indianapolis International Airport, claiming it denied him a job as a driver because of his beard and turban, which he said his faith requires.

Indirjit Singh, of Greenwood, sued Air Serv Corp. in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis on Tuesday for an unspecified sum of money, claiming Air Serv did not hire him for a $9.90 per hour job he applied for in late 2007 because his beard and turban violate company guidelines for shuttle bus drivers.

He complained to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which determined in September that there was reasonable cause to believe the company had violated the Civil Rights Act.

"I just want to work and earn a living, but Air Serv refused to give me a chance even after they understood that a turban and beard are an integral part of my faith," Singh said in a statement issued by Public Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that is backing the lawsuit. "I don't want this to happen to anyone else, and I don't want my son to face discrimination in the future because of his own turban and beard."

A friend of Singh's who also wears a beard and turban has worked for Air Serv at Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., according to the lawsuit.

"It makes it, in our view, even more egregious," said Claire Prestal, a staff attorney with Washington-based Public Justice. "There was nothing, in our view, that would interfere with the job that Mr. Singh applied for."

Megan Jones, Air Serv's general counsel, did not immediately respond to a Wednesday phone message seeking comment.

Singh was traveling and was unavailable for comment, Prestal said.

Singh, 51, has not cut his hair since birth, has covered his hair since he was a young boy and has worn a turban since he was 14 years old, according to Public Justice.

Most male adherents of Sikhism take the surname Singh, which means lion, as a way to promote equality. The religion founded in India about five centuries ago believes in one god and rejects idolatry and the caste system. In the U.S. its bearded, turban-wearing members often are mistaken as Muslim. About 500,000 Sikhs live in the U.S.

K.P. Singh, a leader of the central Indiana Sikh community, said members of the faith in Indiana have been subjected to discrimination on the job and in airport security, and some cases of verbal and physical violence, but not more onerous prejudice the Sikhs have felt elsewhere.

"Fortunately, I think Indiana has been relatively spared of some of the incidents that have gone on in other states," said Singh, and artist writer and architect who has lived in the Indianapolis since 1967.

The local community had about 2,500 families and worships at three temples, including one where Gov. Mitch Daniels was a guest last year, K.P. Singh said.

The lawsuit was filed days after the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, another Sikh, was feted at the first White House state dinner since President Barack Obama took office this year.

"On the one hand, you have the prime minister meeting with the leader of the free world, and on the other hand you have someone trying to support his family with a shuttle bus job, and he couldn't get that," said Prestal.