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Sikh's turban a 'no-no' at clubs

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One year ago last week, Harpreet Grewal decided to take his wife out on the town to celebrate her birthday. But when they arrived at Donzi's Restaurant in the Strip District, they were turned away, because Grewal, a Sikh, was wearing a turban.

He was angry, but he didn't pursue the matter, thinking it was an aberration.

Last week, Grewal, an Oakland resident, decided to take his wife, Gultaj, out again for her birthday, this time to Touch, also in the Strip -- and also run by the owner of Donzi's, Tom Jayson.

And once again, the couple was denied entry.

"While my wife and I were in line, we were approached by an employee of the club who told us I wouldn't be allowed in unless I removed my turban," said Grewal, 27, a doctor who is completing his residency in internal medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. "I explained that it is an article of my faith and I couldn't comply with such a request."

But the manager wouldn't budge.

"They told me they wouldn't even let a Jewish person in wearing a yarmulke unless he removed it," said Grewal. "They said, 'If we let you in, other people will start saying wearing hats is part of their religious beliefs, and we're trying to promote a certain image here.' "

What kind of image?

"An upscale image," said Grewal, a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Michigan Medical School.

The club had no comment on the incident or its dress code.

Such incidents are all too common nationwide, said Manjit Singh, executive director of Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force, a Maryland-based nonprofit group that helps Sikhs protect their religious rights and monitors misinformation about them in the news media.

"Denial of services in public accommodations is an ongoing problem," said Singh, citing similar examples of Sikhs being turned away over the years at nightclubs in New Jersey and Texas for wearing turbans. Those cases were eventually settled, with the Sikh individuals allowed access. "Unfortunately, many times the establishment is unaware that the turban is a religious article of faith."

In 1997, he noted, a Princeton University computer science professor won a $10,000 settlement from a Mexican restaurant in New York City that had denied him entry when he refused to remove his turban. The restaurant also put up a sign that said: "Men must not wear hats, except for religious reasons."

The 500-year-old Sikh faith, which is based in Northern India, requires men to keep their heads covered. The religion promotes a distinct identity that is supposed to show a follower's devotion to God, which includes having unshorn hair and covering that hair with a cloth turban.

About 500,000 Sikhs live in the United States, with about 100 families in the Tri-State area who worship at a Sikh temple in Monroeville.

In some parts of the country, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made things worse for Sikhs, who were targeted for abuse and hate crimes, Singh said, because they resemble Afghans due to their turbans and skin color. Many people also associated them -- wrongly -- with Osama bin Laden, a Muslim.

The first victim of a post-Sept. 11 hate crime was a Sikh, and a month after the attacks, a Sikh was forced to remove his turban and have his hair examined at an airline check-in counter, to his great humiliation and distress, Singh said. Also Sikhs seeking to visit an inmate in a Washington state prison were denied access until officials were informed that the prison was violating federal civil rights laws, which guarantee equal access to places of public accommodation without discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion or national origin.

The same situation may be true here, say some civil libertarians.

"This club clearly has a problem of religious discrimination, because it applies not just to Sikhs but Orthodox Jews, and I frankly cannot think of any reason why this club would continue this policy," said Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Grewal says he plans to fight the policy, but is at a loss to explain it.

"I was born and raised in the United States," Grewal said. "My parents emigrated here from India in 1970, and I have traveled all over the U.S. and the rest of the world without any such problem occurring.

"But more than anything, I'm just tired of this. I'm tired of being treated like a second-class citizen just because I have a different appearance, and I don't think I should be treated as anything less than equal."


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.

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