Transit Rules? Scratch Head, Covered or Not

TRANSIT officials got bad press this week for banishing a Sikh train operator from his subway because of his turban. Embarrassed, they reversed themselves, and returned him to his original job. Case closed, right?

Not quite. The motorman, Kevin Harrington, who was temporarily exiled to a train yard in the Bronx, is back at his regular post. But the fuss exposed a policy so inconsistent that it forced New York City Transit into retreat. And the issue has some echoes.

The agency announced yesterday that it would review its dress code. "Even though we have a rule and a policy, it's not a clear policy that has been consistently enforced,'' a spokesman, Paul Fleuranges, explained. He's got that right.

Turns out that the Harrington case is not the first, and it seems to have drawn so much publicity because the agency picked on the wrong man - a burly resident of the Bronx who has been with the transit system for 23 years. Mr. Harrington, 53, is not exactly shy.

When a supervisor told him last week that he was being reassigned because he would not wear a regulation transit cap, he went public in The Daily News and Newsday and his outspoken manner drew considerable attention.

"There was no due process,'' he said yesterday at the headquarters of the Transport Workers Union in Manhattan. His supervisor told him he could still work in his turban, but moving trains in the yards, out of the public eye. "Do people have trouble with my turban?'' he asked with a laugh. "My subway is always filled to the brim.''

Mr. Harrington, who is of Protestant and Roman Catholic parentage and converted to the Sikh religion 25 years ago, questioned why his turban - a central tenet of faith for Sikhs - became a problem after he had been wearing one at work for 23 years.

There is an answer. Union officials say his exile was precipitated by another train operator, who was reassigned to a train yard recently for wearing dreadlocks and no regulation cap. That motorman, who was also offered his original job back yesterday, complained of unfairness and cited Mr. Harrington's turban.

Why the mini-crackdown? Officials cite only the policy now being revamped, but there are antecedents.

Since 2002, four Muslim women - operators of public buses - have been reassigned to bus yards because they refused to wear regulation caps over their khimars, or head coverings.

The case of three of the women went to an arbitrator, Richard Adelman, who ruled last September that the policy did not violate any law, and that the transit authority had accommodated the religious rights of the operators by giving them jobs that did not require them to cover their khimars.

But Mr. Adelman also said that the rule was written after the women were transferred and that the authority had not enforced the rule uniformly. For instance, he found, men who operate buses are permitted to wear their kufis and fezzes.

The union objected, and earlier this year the arbitrator reiterated that the transit agency had been within its rights to reassign the women, who are now suing in federal court. That might explain things. "I think they are preparing to defend themselves in the case, to defend against any claim of applying inconsistent policy,'' Roger Toussaint, president of the transit union, said of the agency.

THE rationale for the policy is not security - the reason cited for the new head-scratching rule banishing cameras from subways - or safety. Transit officials say that they want to prevent operators who deal with the public from wearing political or personal messages, baseball caps or logos some might find insulting.

The issue of balancing religious and professional obligations is hardly new, but today it often seems to involve Sikhs and Muslims.

Two Sikh police officers, traffic agents, were dismissed because they refused to remove their turbans. One appealed to the City Human Rights Commission; the other is suing, with support from the state attorney general, Eliot Spitzer.

Just two weeks ago, a private limousine company, Skyline Credit Ride, directed some of its drivers - many of them Sikhs - to be cleanshaven and to wear no head cover, but rescinded its rule after complaints and the intervention of Matthew W. Daus, chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

The transit authority spokesman, Mr. Fleuranges, said that in revising its policy, the agency would try to accommodate those whose religions require headwear. "How we do that is still under discussion internally,'' he said. No doubt it will be a very long chat.