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Sikh Employee Unwilling Poster Boy For Transit Authority Dress Code

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    By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN - Staff Reporter of the Sun

    July 13, 2006

    A Sikh transit authority employee has unwillingly emerged as the poster boy for the very dress code he says violates his religious freedom.

    The station agent, Trilok Arora, 68, and four other agents sued the Metropolitan Transit Authority last year over its requirement that they wear an MTA logo on their turbans.

    Regardless, the MTA has recently issued a brochure describing the dress code that includes a photo of Mr. Arora sporting an MTA-branded turban, according to court filings. In a telephone interview, Mr. Arora said he is embarrassed to appear in print representing a policy that he opposes. In fact, Mr. Arora regularly flouts the dress code, pinning the logo to his blue turban only when a supervisor orders him to do so, he said.

    Since May, employment attorneys for the Department of Justice — which filed its own lawsuit against the dress code — have sent four letters to federal court protesting the transit authority's use of Mr. Arora as a model for the logo-laden turban.

    Mr. Arora's lawsuit alleges that the MTA is lax about enforcing its dress code prohibiting employees from wearing Yankees and Mets caps, but targets Sikhs to hassle them about their religious headwear. His lawyers claim that the MTA has no right to place its "corporate brand" on the religious garments of its employees.

    "This is beyond obnoxious," an attorney for Mr. Arora, Amardeep Singh, said of the recent dress code bulletin. "The MTA is thumbing it right in your face by showing you just how well it can make you violate your religion," Mr. Singh, legal director of the Sikh Coalition, said.

    Mr. Arora, who works as a night station agent along the A line, said the bulletin, which is addressed to all train service personnel, is now on file in station booths across the city. The bulletin was released in May, according to court letters.

    "It's an embarrassment to be shown like this," he said.

    The bulletin describes the dress code and features six black-and-white photographs of unnamed men and women who model turbans and headscarves. Mr. Arora identified himself as the employee shown in the upper-left corner of the bulletin. Beneath his MTA logo and turban, his expression in the photograph is Mona Lisa-like for its inscrutability.

    The bulletin, his lawyers say, is unfair to Mr. Arora. It has transformed him into "the poster child for the uniform policy" and gives "the clear impression that he finds the logo requirement acceptable," a Justice Department attorney, Diana Embrey, wrote in a June 20 letter.

    Ms. Embrey has asked Magistrate-Judge Marilyn Go of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn to order the transit authority to remove Mr. Arora's image from the bulletin. She writes that the bulletin violates a court order barring Mr. Arora's superiors from engaging him in certain discussions about the dress code.

    In an interview, Mr. Arora observed that the MTA is not the only institution to require its employees to place a logo on their turbans. During 27 years of service in India's Air Force, Mr. Arora said he wore on his turban the insignia of his military unit, as was required. After coming to America in 1994, it seems he expected more.

    He said the MTA has no reason to encroach on his turban.

    "There is no point on having the logo on the turban," he said. "We wear the logo everywhere else on the uniform."

    The circumstances surrounding how Mr. Arora ended up in the bulletin are unclear.

    Ms. Embrey, the Justice Department attorney, contends that Mr. Arora was ordered by a superior to appear to transit headquarters on March 7, according to court filings. He was told to affix the logo to his turban prior to being photographed. He left the office unaware that the photograph would be "disseminated to thousands of employees," Mr. Embrey writes.

    Lawyers for the transportation authority dispute that account.

    "I think that what we may have here is a situation in which an intelligent adult, Mr. Arora, has recently changed his mind (or been persuaded that he should change his mind) about the use of a photograph he had freely consented to have taken," a lawyer, Richard Schoolman, wrote last month. Mr. Arora was paid for his time during the photo shoot and told that his portrait would be used "as part of an illustrative bulletin," according to the letter. He also signed a release waiver, Mr. Schoolman wrote.

    Mr. Arora, 68, said he plans to retire when he turns 70. Until then, he plans to wear his MTA logo only when a supervisor orders him to.

    "I don't want to argue much," Mr. Arora said. "I'm already 68. I want to retire and I don't want to make a commotion."

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