Sikh to sue township for violation of civil rights

A Sikh court official in New York who was pulled from two domestic flights last October for refusing to take off his turban when asked by airport security officials, is taking legal action against the municipality and airline officials for alleged violation of his civil rights and for religious discrimination.

Tejinder Singh Kahlon, a resident of East Meadow, NY, said he had sent the notice of claim as is mandatory under the law, to municipal officials of Islip Township last week. The township owns the MacArthur Airport, where Kahlon was to have boarded a Southwest Airlines flight for Arizona.

“There is a 90-day period within which the municipality must reply to the notice, but we will not wait for the reply and go ahead with the lawsuit that is being prepared by my lawyer,” he told India Abroad.

On October 25, Kahlon, a hearing examiner in Nassau County Court, checked in at the MacArthur Airport and was walking towards the security check area to take a 6:45 p.m. flight. Before Kahlon could research the security area, a woman security official asked him not to come but stay where he was. Kahlon was then checked by two security officials with handheld metal detectors and was taken to a side room for a further security check. Although they did not find anything on him, once inside the room they asked him to take off his turban for checking. He said while the officials were free to check his turban from the outside, even with the handheld metal detector, he would not take off his turban in public as it was against his religion.

But the officials would not agree. “They insisted that either I take off my turban or I go home. I preferred not take off my turban,” said Kahlon, an American citizen who has been living in the US for more than 30 years.

Kahlon decided to go back home along with his daughter and wife. Pravin Mahavir, the station manager of the airlines, came to his home and apologized for the incident.

Mahavir, also offered to book him on a 10 a.m. flight next day, October 26. Kahlon told Mahavir that as long as the officials did not insist on taking off his turban, he would gladly take the flight.

But even that was not to be. The next day, when he reached the airport, saw a replay of what happened the previous day. A hapless Kahlon was then taken to meet in one official, whom he identified as Marty Raber, executive assistant to the Commissioner for Transportation and Aviation in Islip. Raber told him he was the final authority and that Kahlon would not be allowed to board any flight unless and until he took of his turban.

“It was a very distressing, very un-American way of treating citizens,” Kahlon, who is often addressed as “the honorable judge,” said. “They put restrictions on my freedom to practice my religion,” he said.

Kahlon said last week that apart from the Islip township officials, the lawsuit would also name airline officials as defendants. Asked if it would be a class action suit to include others who might have suffered the same fate in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks when security was beefed up, he said it was possible. “My attorney tells me that at the moment it is an individual lawsuit which may become a class action later on,” he said.

Asked if he would seek punitive and compensatory damages from the township as indicated by his lawyer, Tomas Liotti, Kahlon pleaded ignorance. “I don’t know about that, as my lawyer is still working on preparing the lawsuit. My purpose is to get justice and see that the law of the land is upheld,” he said. Liotti could not be reached at press time.

Kahlon said his intention behind filing the lawsuit was to bring to public notice that such violations of civil rights should not occur even during times of increased security.

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