A Costa Mesa bar is criticized for turning away a Sikh medical student wearing a turban.

February 8th, 2007

By JEFF OVERLEY

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

COSTA MESA – Is a turban the same as a hat?

That question has stoked a debate about religious freedom that’s pitting a local medical student against a Costa Mesa nightclub.

Sanjum Paul Singh Samagh, a 24-year-old living on campus at UC Irvine, says Sikh attire cost him entry to the Pierce Street Annex bar, where the dress code prohibits hats.

On Jan. 25, Samagh arrived at the watering hole with about 20 friends. The bar’s owner refused to let him in, citing the dress code, Samagh and several friends say.

“It’s not a fashion statement I’m trying to make,” Samagh recalled telling the owner, explaining that his black cotton turban, or dastaar, is worn for religious reasons.

The bar’s owner, Doug Adsit, did not return several calls. A woman who identified herself as the bar’s manager declined to comment.

Samagh and his friends left Pierce Street Annex after he was denied entry, but aren’t letting the incident slide, instead calling for a boycott. “My classmates are amazing; they stood up for me,” Samagh said.

The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national advocacy group, wants an apology and a policy change. “This is blatantly discriminatory,” said Rajbir Singh Datta, the group’s executive director. “You’re trying to have fun with your friends, and you’re forced to stay outside because of your religion.”

The incident’s legal underpinnings are unclear.

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, said that under state law, the bar would only be liable if it intentionally discriminated. The dress code “may burden Sikhs … more than it burdens others, but … that’s not something the bar has to worry about,” Volokh said. Under federal law, Samagh might have a case, because rulings have varied, Volokh added.

Chapman University associate law professor Lawrence Rosenthal said that if Samagh made clear the turban was religiously important, the bar might need to accommodate him.

Friends of Samagh’s who were at Pierce Street Annex say that while they disagree with Adsit, the bar owner was polite. “He was not disrespectful,” friend Paola Case recalled. “He said, ‘Ma’am, this is not a policy intended to discriminate against people.’ ”

Nonetheless, Case said the incident was “reminiscent of Jim Crow” laws.

“If I have to make an exception for him, I have to make an exception for everyone,” friend Jon Falakassa recalled Adsit as saying.

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