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Fleet Bank Settles Sikh Bias Suit


The Associated Press, Newark, N.J., Feb. 1, 2003

"Fleet Bank has settled a discrimination suit brought by a Sikh businessman who was turned away when he tried to open a certificate of deposit. New Jersey's largest banking company reached the settlement Friday, the same day it pledged to recognize the religious rights of Sikhs to wear turbans and beards. Sikh leaders, who had threatened a boycott of the bank over the case, hailed the agreement. 'It is the first time any U.S. corporation has publicly stated it will accommodate Sikhs as full and equal employees and customers,' Manjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force [S.M.A.R.T.], a Washington-based advocacy group, told The Star-Ledger of Newark. The settlement stemmed from a religious discrimination suit filed by Inderjeet Singh Chowdhary, 45, who claimed employees at the bank's Carteret branch refused to let him open a $250,000 certificate of deposit and asked him to leave."
"As a practicing member of the Sikh faith, Chowdhary wears a turban and has a beard. Chowdhary, an American citizen and a former merchant marine captain, will be paid an undisclosed sum under the confidential settlement, said his lawyer, Ravinder S. Bhalla. While many corporations have nondiscrimination policies on their books and tolerate religious and cultural differences, Bhalla called the agreement with Fleet a 'big step' for the rights of Sikhs, who are mandated by their religion to wear things like turbans, kara-steel bracelets and small daggers. 'If Fleet Bank, one of the largest financial institutions in the country, recognizes the right of Sikhs to maintain their faith and retain their employment and their status, then why shouldn't others?' Bhalla said. There are an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Sikhs in New Jersey and a half million nationwide."
"Under its agreement with the advocacy group, Fleet will educate employees about Sikh-Americans and develop products tailored to the state's Sikh community. In a joint statement, Fleet also promised to closely monitor and 'vigilantly enforce its anti-discrimination policies.' 'We believe we have come to a resolution of this misunderstanding that was mutually agreeable, and we're pleased we had such a productive dialogue,' said Steve Lubetkin, a Fleet spokesman. 'We feel we have simply reaffirmed the beliefs and policies we already have in place.' "
"In his lawsuit, Chowdhary claimed he was denied service when he went to Fleet's Carteret branch on Aug. 21 to open a fixed-rate 15-month certificate of deposit. Chowdhary said he was filling out the paperwork with a teller when Carteret branch Vice President Alicia Eagleston stopped the application process and called the teller to her desk, according to the suit. When the teller returned, she told Chowdhary, without explanation, he was no longer allowed to open a certificate of deposit, the suit charged. Eagleston then escorted Chowdhary to the door and asked him to leave. Fleet denies any discrimination took place against Chowdhary that day, according to Lubetkin. The spokesman added that the Carteret branch is a multiethnic workplace with a diverse employee base. Several dialects of Indian, including Punjabi, are spoken there."