Sikh Religious Musicians Settle with US Airways After Wrongful Removal From Flight

December 14, 2009 12:00 am

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Three internationally renowned Sikh religious musicians have reached a settlement with US Airways one year after they were removed from a flight at the Sacramento International Airport in an incident of racial profiling and discrimination. After the removal, the trio filed a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation. The musicians, Davinder Singh, Gulbag Singh and Iqbal Singh, are classical religious performers who perform in Sikh Gurdwaras (houses of worship) around the world. Sikhs wearing turbans, as the musicians do, have increasingly been subject to harassment and discrimination after September 11, particularly at airports, as have many other ethnic and religious groups.

Despite federal law prohibiting airlines from targeting and removing passengers based on their religious or ethnic appearance, the trio was subjected to biased treatment from US Airways after passengers expressed baseless concerns about the musicians' appearance.

"Airlines must do everything they can to ensure their passengers' rights to be free from discrimination. Flying with a turban is not a security threat," said Jaspreet Singh, Staff Attorney for UNITED SIKHS, which represented the musicians. UNITED SIKHS is a United Nations-affiliated international organization based in New York. "When airlines remove passengers solely because of how they look, they contribute to a climate of biased misinformation."

On November 15, 2008, the three Sikh musicians were preparing to travel from Sacramento to Salt Lake City, via Phoenix, for a performance. Shortly after passing through TSA screening without incident and peacefully boarding a US Airways flight, the men were ordered to leave the plane. They complied with the removal. However, airline employees did not provide any explanation as to why they were being removed, but they were told, through a Panjabi interpreter, that the pilot would not fly with them on board. After suffering humiliation in front of other passengers, the musicians were each handed a $5 meal voucher and forced to delay their travel until the next day. They experienced no problems boarding the Delta flight on which they were rebooked.

To date, the airline has failed to provide any legitimate security concerns justifying the removal. The removal was apparently sparked by passengers' and crew-members' fears of the musicians' based on their ethnic and religious appearance. In fact, a letter from US Airways indicates that the flight's pilot had not made the decision to remove the musicians, but acquiesced after they had already been escorted off the plane, and without basing the decision on any actual security concerns.

"Religious freedom and the right to be free from racial profiling apply to everyone," said Andre Segura, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "Passengers do not have veto power over flying with people whose ethnic or religious appearance makes them uncomfortable. Likewise, airlines do not have a license to discriminate."

As terms of the settlement, the Chairman and CEO of US Airways issued an apology to the musicians. The musicians also received an undisclosed amount in compensation for the incident. Prior to the settlement and at the urging of UNITED SIKHS, the airline updated its training materials and distributed a bulletin reminding its employees of the company's anti-discrimination policy. UNITED SIKHS offered training specific to the needs of the Sikh community, which the airline declined.

This settlement comes just after US Airways' recent settlement in a federal lawsuit in which six Muslim religious leaders alleged that they had been removed from a flight based on their religious and ethnic backgrounds.

The Sacramento area houses the largest Sikh community in the United States. The musicians reside in India, but frequently travel to the United States and elsewhere around the globe for religious performances.

The dastaar (Sikh turban) is the most recognizable feature of a Sikh. It is an inextricable part of the Sikh identity and is worn by a Sikh at all times, to cover the kesh (unshorn hair), one of the five articles of faith that initiated Sikhs are required to maintain. The requirement of unshorn hair and a dastaar tied over it has been codified in the Sikh Code of Conduct (Sikh Rehat Maryada).

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