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Happily Ever After: Religious Freedom Prevails at Walt Disney World

Heather L. Weaver,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
Gurjot Kaur,
Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney
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July 8, 2015

When Gurdit Singh was offered a job in 2008 as a mail carrier at Walt Disney World, he was thrilled. On his first day, however, it quickly became apparent that his new job might not be the path to happily ever after he had imagined.

Singh, a devout Sikh who wears a turban and neatly kept beard, was told by his Disney bosses that he would not be permitted to run mail routes visible to park guests because his religious appearance violated the company’s “Look Policy.”

But this month, after the ACLU and the Sikh Coalition sent a letter on Mr. Singh’s behalf, Disney finally reversed its decision and granted Mr. Singh a religious accommodation.

Mr. Singh will no longer be kept hidden from public view of Disney visitors because of his turban and beard, and he will be permitted to run all mail routes just like every other mail carrier. The change will dramatically improve his work experience. For seven years, Mr. Singh was restricted to delivering mail to Disney’s corporate offices — a mail route that shielded him from areas where Disney guests congregate. Meanwhile, all of Mr. Singh’s co-workers rotated their routes every three weeks and delivered mail throughout Walt Disney World.

As we pointed out in our letter to Disney, this segregation relegated Mr. Singh to a mail route that had a greater workload than other routes. It created animosity among his co-workers because he could not assist in operating other routes. And it precluded his opportunities for professional advancement. Because of these discriminatory conditions, Mr. Singh felt singled out, humiliated, and ashamed based on his appearance and his religious practices.

Segregation of employees based on race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion is a pernicious practice. It not only harms the individual employee, but it also breeds discrimination against all members of minority groups by preventing them from participating fully in the workplace and sending the message that they are less valued as employees and human beings.

“Look” policies, in particular, tend to negatively impact religious minorities, whose appearance may not reflect what many customers are used to. That’s why the Supreme Court recently ruled in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie and Fitch Stores that employers who have such policies can’t simply turn a blind eye to an employee’s need for a religious accommodation.

Because Disney is a major multinational corporation, its decision to grant Mr. Singh a religious accommodation is an important step forward in achieving workplace equality for Sikhs and others of minority faiths, and Disney should be applauded.

We hope that Disney will continue to be more welcoming of minority-faith employees and that other companies will follow Disney’s shining example. By adopting more inclusive religious accommodation policies, employers like Disney can show that happy endings are not just for fairy tales and that dreams do come true.

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