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Ex-USF student sues Disney over turban dispute

A former University of South Florida student sued Walt Disney World, claiming the theme park discriminated against him because of his Sikh headdress.

Sukhbir Channa, 24, claims that Disney discriminated against him because he did not conform to the "Disney look." Channa, a practicing Sikh, wears a dastaar, a turban required by his religion.

"From my perspective as a Jew, what if this policy was being used to discriminate against an Orthodox Jew or someone wearing a yarmulke?" asked Matt Sarelson, the Miami attorney representing Channa. "I'd be offended."

Channa was hired by Disney in October 2005 as a trumpet player for the Disney Christmas celebration, according to his lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in Hillsborough County Circuit Court.

Channa had two responsibilities, "parade" and "atmospheric," the lawsuit explained. During the parade, he wore a toy soldier costume that entirely covered his head. For the atmospheric position, where musicians typically wear red berets, Channa agreed to wear a red turban.

Channa claims that his supervisor later removed him from the atmospheric position because he lacked the "Disney look." The company then fired him in early 2006. The following year, Channa reapplied, the lawsuit claims. His former supervisor said he was an excellent musician, and right for the job, but still had the "look problem." Walt Disney denies Channa's claims.

"Mr. Channa never sought reemployment for the 2006 season," said Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Polak. "His claim that he did and was denied employment is without merit."

Polak added, "We value and respect diversity in our cast members and treat each request for an accommodation individually."

Channa is seeking $1 million in punitive damages.

"The dastaar is a constitutionally protected article of faith with deep religious significance for practitioners of the five-centuries-old Sikh tradition, which promotes universal equality, freedom of expression, tolerance, and compassion," the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund said in a statement Monday. "Sikhs across the United States are often forced by employers and prospective employers to choose between religious freedom and a job."

The Washington, D.C., advocacy group has partnered with Sarelson on the case. The lawsuit was filed in Hillsborough County because the alleged discrimination took place while Channa was a student in Tampa. He now lives in Broward County, his attorney said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3117.

Ex-USF student sues Disney over turban dispute 06/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 20, 2008 12:24pm]
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