By Alex Davidson
A former Ozone Park traffic who is a Sikh filed a federal lawsuit against the he New York Police Department and the police commissioner Tuesday charging that he was fired from his job because he refused to trim his beard or take off his turban.
Amric Singh Rathour, 26, a lifelong Queens resident, filed the eight-count suit in federal court in Manhattan. In the suit, Rathour contends he was fired on Aug. 27, 2002 two months after he was sworn in as a trainee traffic officer, because he would not conform to the NYPD's dress code.
“What is at stake here is the guaranteed right of every Sikh American – and indeed, every American – to have an equal employment opportunity without discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs,” he said. “I hope that one day soon, I will be able to proudly serve in the NYPD.”
The suit alleges the NYPD is guilty of religious discrimination, negligence, harassment and causing emotional distress for deciding that Rathour would not be allowed to wear a turban or maintain a beard longer than one millimeter.
There was no specific dollar amount requested by Rathour in the suit, but he is seeking compensatory damages.
The suit was filed in federal court because it claims violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says it is illegal to fire someone based on race or religion.
Rathour, who said he was outraged when the NYPD fired him and destroyed his childhood dream of eventually becoming a police officer after serving as a traffic cop, said in an interview he did not expect such a harsh reaction from officials in New York.
“Growing up in such a diverse city, I never felt this type of discrimination until I worked for the city itself and the New York Police Department,” he said. “I was fired because I refused to give up my right as an American to practice my religion.”
On June 19, after being sworn in as a trainee traffic officer, Rathour was told to contact the NYPD's Equal Employment Office to see whether his turban complied with the uniform regulations of the Police Department, according to the suit.
NYPD rules state that all traffic agents “must wear a white vinyl eight-point hat properly fitted on the agent's head without any articles visible.”
After being told that he would have to change his appearance, Rathour filed a Reasonable Request Form with the EEO, asking that his turban and beard be accepted as part of his uniform because they are part of his religion.
His attorney, Ravinder Singh Bhalla, along with Sikh police officers from London and Ontario, Canada, told a news conference Tuesday the turban and the beard are part of the everyday religious practices in the Sikh religion and thus cannot be removed.
Sikhs are allowed to wear turbans in both Canada and the United Kingdom. Kashmira Singh Mann, a police officer in London, said there are more than 150 Sikhs working in London's police department, 20 of whom choose to wear their turbans.
The suit says the NYPD denied Rathour's request and instead offered him the option of maintaining a one millimeter beard and wearing a skull cap under his hat. Rathour says because he refused to comply with this request, he was fired.
“During my eight-week training period as an NYPD officer, my supervisors harassed and punished me, and even threatened to fire me, if I did not submit to their demands that I remove my turban and beard,” Rathour is quoted in the suit as saying.
The Sikh Coalition, a national organization of more than 50 Sikh groups, said repeated attempts to contact Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had failed, resulting in the federal suit.
Bhalla said this was the last resort for his client because past attempts at out-of-court settlements had failed.
Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 156