When first-year medical student Sanjam Singh Samagh was questioned about his ID while trying to enter the Pierce Street Annex in Costa Mesa, it was not about his age, but rather because his profile picture showed him wearing a turban.
Samagh, a Sikh who wears a turban for religious reasons, is now working with the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund to take action against the Pierce Street Annex and the UCI Medical Department is officially boycotting the club.
Samagh arrived at the Pierce Street Annex to attend a fellow medical student’s birthday celebration. With a group of about 20 already waiting for his arrival, Samagh stood in line with several friends to get into the bar, which has a strict ‘no-hat’ policy. Samagh gave the bouncer his ID which pictured him with a turban, and after looking at it closely, the bouncer asked if the turban had religious significance.
After explaining that it did, the bouncer said he would have to check with the owner, Douglas Adsit, before allowing him to enter the bar. Once Adsit came out, he explained to Samagh that the bar had a ‘no-headgear’ policy and could not let him in.
‘By this time, all my friends inside the bar were wondering where I was so they came out to speak to the owner on my behalf,’ Samagh said.
After about 15 minutes, Adsit, who did not return the New University’s request for comment on the incident, allegedly told Samagh that ‘people with headgear cause problems’ and he couldn’t make an exception. After hearing this, Samagh and his group of friends left the bar to celebrate elsewhere.
Samagh’s first reaction was shock: ‘I was insulted, and couldn’t believe it happened, especially in a place like California where people seem to be pretty well-educated.’
He said he finds it unfair that Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and others are targeted just because they choose to wear religious head coverings.
Karen Leonard, a professor of anthropology and religious studies at UC Irvine, expressed dismay when she heard of the incident.
‘This is outrageous given the time Sikh organizations have spent promoting knowledge about Sikh religion and its representatives. The American public should know by now what a Sikh looks like,’ Leonard said.
After years of studying South Asian religions and their identities in America, Leonard said she thought we were past occurrences like this.
As a sign of protest, no medical functions will take place at the Pierce Street Annex until the situation is resolved.
SALDEF aims to protect the civil rights of Sikh Americans and help them through legal assistance, educational outreach, legislative advocacy and media relations. They deal with civil rights, legislative, employment and accommodation issues on a regular basis, and maintain a national office in Washington, D.C.
SALDEF sent a letter to Adsit saying, ‘The Sikh turban is a fundamental and integral part of a Sikh’s identity. It is not a hat or cap that can be removed and put on casually. The turban is a religious article of faith which has been protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as well as Federal and State courts across the country.’ SALDEF also caught media attention a few months ago when similar scenario occurred in Virginia. As a result of that incident, SALDEF’s action against the bar pushed the owner to make a formal apology and add religious exceptions to the bar’s ‘no-hat’ policy.
SALDEF Western Regional Director Kavneet Singh said, ‘Businesses whose ‘no hats’ policies do not allow for religious accommodation are in violation of the Freedom of Expression doctrine in the United States Constitution. Such acts are blatantly discriminatory by nature and seek to denigrate not only the 500,000 Sikh Americans currently residing in the United States but also our brothers and sisters in other faith communities who wear religious garb as part of their beliefs.’
Samagh says that all he wants is for Pierce Street Annex and other places like it to recognize religious exceptions to the very common ‘no-headgear’ policy.
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