NEW YORK - In a major victory for both religious minorities, Muslim and Sikh employees at New York City's transit system have won the right to wear their head covering freely while on duty.
"This settlement agreement sends a clear message that the Department of Justice will not tolerate religious discrimination," Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas Perez said in a statement cited by Reuters.
The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against New York City Transit Authority in 2004 to end discrimination against Muslim and Sikh employees following the 9/11 attacks.
Under a so-called brand or segregate policy, Muslim and Sikh employees were ordered to brand their religious head coverings with the logo for the rail and bus operator's parent or work in jobs out of the public view.
The lawsuit said the policy, which had been on the books for years but was not actively enforced until 2002, was being used to target Sikh and Muslim workers.
Workers who refused to append a transit-system logo to their head covering were disciplined and forced to work less-desirable jobs out of passengers' view.
Transit Authority officials said the 2002 crackdown was part of an "across-the-board, neutral enforcement" of its uniform policy.
But several Muslim and Sikh employees who joined the suit said the policy was designed to appease anti-Muslim sentiment following the 9/11 attacks.
But under the new settlement, Muslim and Sikh employees as bus drivers, train operators, conductors and station agents will be allowed to wear their headscarves, turbans and other religious head wear, provided they are in the same blue color as their transit uniforms.
The Transit Authority has also agreed to pay monetary settlements totaling at least $184,500 to eight Sikh and Muslim current and former employees who filed employment discrimination claims.
"I am pleased that the NYCTA has agreed to end its discriminatory practices that for years have forced employees to choose between practicing their religion and maintaining their jobs," said Perez.
The settlement has won swift plaudits from Sikh leaders.
"We're glad that this sad chapter in our city's reaction to 9/11 has come to an end," Amardeep Singh, program director of the Sikh Coalition, said in a statement.
He said many innocent Sikh and Muslims have taken the full brunt of discrimination following the 9/11 attacks.
"Innocent Sikh and Muslim workers were essentially punished and segregated for the events of that day, he said.
We are ready to turn the page now and are particularly pleased that procedures are in place that better protect the rights of all, not just Muslims and Sikhs, at the MTA.
Plaintiff Sat Hari Singh, who also went by the name of Kevin Harrington, was also jubilant. "I am relieved that the policy of branding or segregating Sikh or Muslim workers is coming to an end," he said.
"The MTA honored me for driving my train in reverse away from the towers on 9/11 and leading passengers to safety. They called me a 'hero of 9/11'. I didn't have a corporate logo on my turban on 9/11, said Singh, a train operator.This policy made no sense. It was driven by fear. I'm glad it has come to an end.