Sikh community celebrates law banning religious garb discrimination

Assemblymember David Weprin with Sikh community members.  Eagle  Photo by Rachel Vick.

Assemblymember David Weprin with Sikh community members. Eagle Photo by Rachel Vick.

By Rachel Vick

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, nationality or sex — but it wasn’t until last week that New York took steps to end workplace discrimination based on religious attire or facial hair. 

On Aug. 9, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Religious Garb Bill, which prohibits discrimination based on religious attire after years of advocacy by religious organizations, including members of the Sikh community.

Assemblymember David Weprin and Senator John Liu sponsored the bill. They joined local lawmakers and advocates of various races and religions at the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill on Tuesday to celebrate the new law.

Weprin highlighted a recent increase in hate crimes, including the recent attack against a Hindu priest in Glen Oaks, and said the bill was a “great victory against hate and discrimination.”

“Finally in a state as diverse as ours, people of faith no longer have to choose between their religion and their jobs,” Weprin said.

Weprin told the story of Kevin Harrington, a Sikh man who wore a turban and a long beard who worked as an E train conductor during 9/11. He was given the choice of wearing the MTA logo on his turban or being removed from public work, Weprin said. 

The Religious Garb Bill was first introduced in 2011 but failed to pass the state Senate until the past legislative session. The bill will ensure that people like Harrington no longer face choices based on their religious clothing or customs. 

Councilmember Adrienne Adams and Assemblymembers Mike Miller, Alicia Hyndman and Daniel Rosenthal also attended the event and praised the new law.

“Part of why this is so important is because if you look around Queens, you see how diverse we are, how our brothers and sisters make the fabric of this area that much greater,” Hyndman said.

Harpreet Singh Tour, former president of the Sikh Cultural Society, said he and other members of the South Asian community were excited and grateful that the bill passed.

“It’s really hard to make people understand the issues but [Weprin] got it from day one, and he took it to heart,” Tour said. “In the Senate we had that issue, they weren’t getting it. This year [Liu and other representatives] turned the Democrats into real Democrats.”

Liu spoke last, reflecting the community members’ sentiments on the importance of the legislation and adding that he was frustrated the bill didn’t become law in previous legislative sessions.

“The Sikh community, who has routinely encountered discrimination for their turbans and facial hair, no longer has to accept this outright bias, as a part of their everyday lives,” Liu said.  “Especially now, where bigotry is at a fever pitch in our country, New York must stand united and lead in our tolerance and inclusion of people of all faiths.”

The law goes into effect on Oct. 9.

“They did their part now it’s up to us to take the next steps. If you see any discrimination based on appearance, based on religious attire you need to speak up,” said District Leader Dr. Neeta Jain. “Do not be silent.”