Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It's a Discriminatory World After All - Sikh sues Disney for banning his turban

I am a Sikh man and the turban that I wear is a religiously-mandated article of clothing. My supervisor tells me that my turban makes my coworkers "uncomfortable," and has asked me to remove it. What should I do?

If a turban is religiously-mandated, you should ask your employer for a religious accommodation to wear it at work. Your employer has a legal obligation to grant your request if it does not impose a burden, or an "undue hardship," under Title VII. Claiming that your coworkers might be "upset" or "uncomfortable" when they see your turban is not an undue hardship.

The above is the EEOC's position on the accommodation of religious articles of clothing. I bring this up because Disney has been sued by a practitioner of the Sikh religion, who claims he was denied a job because of his turban. According to a press release by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund:

Mr. Channa applied for a job as a musician with Disney in the Fall of 2006 but was told that he would not be hired because he lacked "the Disney look" - a negative reference to his religiously-mandated dastaar (Sikh turban).

This lawsuit will most likely be decided on one question - does it pose an undue hardship on Disney for one of its performers to wear a turban? This question is not as easy to answer as it might appear. Disney World might be the most controlled environment on the planet. Employees are not called employees, but cast members. Every worker is considered integral to the suspension of disbelief that Disney is trying to create. Thus, if Mr. Channa is going to be performing, shouldn't he be required to wear the uniform, even if it means not wearing his turban?

On the flip side, Disney permitted Mr. Channa to interview and rehearse with his turban. If the specific uniform was a requirement for the job, why lead him along only to pull the rug out from under him at the last minute. Plus, I'd image that a company as large as Disney has had cast members in the past who have not been able to match the uniform exactly. For example, would Disney refuse to hire a disabled musician if he had to perform in a wheelchair?

It seems to me that Disney dropped the ball on this one. Can there really be an undue hardship on Disney by allowing Mr. Channa to wear his turban? The EEOC defines undue hardship as an accommodation that "requires more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees' job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee's share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work." Religious head wear does not impact any of these factors. This is a lawsuit that Disney should settle and settle quickly, if for no other reason that to avoid the bad press that its small world apparently does not include Sikhs.