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Weprin defends religious attire for Sikh workers

Photo by Christina Santucci
By Phil Corso

On the steps of the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill and surrounded by dozens of community Sikhs, state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) joined with northeast Queens lawmakers Sunday to call on tougher measures against discrimination in the workplace.

Weprin said there was no better time than the present to revive the discussion about protecting the rights of uniformed employees and all New Yorkers against discrimination for wearing dress or garment in observance of religious practices.

He has authored a bill aimed at protecting employees of the city Fire and Police departments from being discriminated against for wearing religious garb.

“An individual should never have to choose between their place of employment and their religious observance,” Weprin said. “I am proud to advocate for policies that codify inclusiveness and ensure discrimination will not occur no matter who the employer is.”

If re-elected to the Assembly, Weprin’s newly redrawn district will include constituents in the Sikh community.

The lawmakers opened the gathering outside the Sikh Cultural Society, at 95-30 118th St., Sunday morning with a moment of silence in recognition of the deadly shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., in which six worshipers were killed.

Hoping to put a relevant face on the issue, Weprin invited a Sikh city employee who worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and was ordered to remove his turban and wear an official MTA hat soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The 23-year employee, Kevin Harrington, later filed a suit against the MTA and won his case.

After he initially objected to removing his turban, the MTA then requested he simply wear a badge on the front of his turban, which was also unacceptable and viewed as not religiously proper.

“As a nation, we will never be free if we continue to hate each other and hate America’s diversity,” Harrington said. “Exclusion, separation and discrimination are all part and partial of a mentality that can destroy America.”

State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) joined the lawmakers on the cultural society’s front steps and pledged that she would sponsor the bill in the Senate if re-elected in November.

“It is unfortunate that such legislation is necessary in the first place,” Stavisky said. “We may look different, but our issues are all the same.”

Other elected officials in attendance included Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) and City Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing).

“The Founding Fathers of this country provided freedom of religion as one of the fundamental rights,” said Harpreet Singh Toor, a coordinator and former president of the society. “Discriminatory practices that differentiate individuals based on belief, color or creed denies individuals of their constitutionally protected rights. This bill would codify the principle that all people should be allowed to practice their religious beliefs without fear of reprisal from their place of employment.”

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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