WASHINGTON - A new U.S. government policy that subjects travellers who wear any type of head covering to possible additional screening at airport checkpoints has prompted vociferous protests from Sikh organizations, who say they are being singled out for ethnic profiling.
"The federal government has equated our most precious article of faith with terrorism," said Amardeep Singh, the executive director of the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group for Sikhs, whose faith dictates that men wear turbans, though some women do as well.
"To send a message that the turban is dangerous sends the wrong message to society."
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which adopted and is enforcing the policy, said that it was aimed not just at turbans but at any headgear and that it was one of the periodic adjustments made to address changing threats. It addresses nonmetallic threats including some explosives.
The change allows for screeners to pat down anyone who is wearing a hat or other head covering, even if the person clears a metal detector.
"It is a matter of when the security officer cannot reasonably determine that the head area is free of a threat item," said Amy Kudwa, a spokesperson for the agency.
The change was part of several adjustments made on Aug. 4, including allowing passengers to carry cigarette lighters and small quantities of bottled breast milk.
But the change regarding headgear was not publicized and came to light only after many Sikh passengers underwent additional screenings.
The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, which co-ordinates security policy across the country, has no plans to introduce similar guidelines.
"At this point the directive remains we search headgear only for cause," spokesperson Brigitte Caron told the Toronto Star's Robyn Doolittle. "It could be a cowboy hat. (All) headgear is treated the same."
Back in the United States, a Sikh businessman, Prabhjit Singh, said he was made to leave the screening line when he balked at the secondary search before an early flight on Aug. 17 from Baltimore/Washington International Airport.
Singh was not told of the new policy until after his turban was inspected by hand in a private room.
"The supervisor made me feel like I had done something wrong," said Singh, 27, a motivational speaker from Maryland. "I felt for the first time in America that I had been targeted, and it was because of the way I looked."
The fact that the policy was put into effect without consulting Sikhs also rankled the Sikh Coalition, which puts the number of Sikhs in the United States at 280,000, part of about 21 million in the world.
Kudwa said the Transportation Security Administration was now discussing the policy with Sikh leaders.
© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007