Sikh persists in 10-year battle with Domino's over beard Company won't hire him unless he shaves it off

October 27, 1997|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

When Prabhjot S. Kohli came to the United States from India 12 years ago, he believed that acceptance of his race and religion "would be no problem because it's the most democratic, multicultural society."

Ten years and $20,000 in legal bills later, he has discovered it can be costly to win acceptance on his terms.

Kohli, 59, has spent a decade fighting Domino's Pizza over its corporate policy banning beards on employees, and the fight is not over. An appeals court has told a Baltimore County judge to decide whether a Human Relations Commission appeals board was correct in finding that Domino's illegally discriminated.

The case started with a complaint Kohli filed with the Maryland Human Relations Commission in 1988, after Domino's refused to hire him as a manager of several pizza stores unless he shaved off his beard.

Kohli's Sikh religion, a minority faith in India, forbids him from shaving, he said, because "God gave you hair. You don't remove it." He wears a turban to conceal his long hair.

The case has been tossed back and forth among Baltimore County Circuit Court, the state Human Relations Commission, a state administrative law judge and a state appeals board.

This month, the state Court of Appeals sent the case back to Circuit Court for it to decide whether the Human Relations Commission's appeals board was right last year when it found Domino's was engaged in illegal religious discrimination and ordered the company to give Kohli back pay and offer him a job.

Kohli, a civil engineer for the state, said a Domino's lawyer told him at one of the many hearings, " 'We'll tire you out.' I said. 'We'll see whether you'll tire me out or whether I'll tire you out.' "

Tim McIntyre, spokesman for Domino's at the company's Ann Arbor, Mich., headquarters, said the company will continue fighting Kohli because the Human Relations Commission's ruling infringes on Domino's business practices.

"We are promoting a brand and image" with clean-shaven employees, and "a government body is interfering with how we market and manage our brand," McIntyre said.

"We believe religion is a choice, and [Kohli] can choose to be a member of the Sikh religion, and we can choose not to hire him."

Kohli, who lives in Catonsville, was not aware that Domino's had a beard ban when he applied in December 1987 for a job managing 35 pizza stores in the Baltimore area.

Kohli, a sales manager for a pharmaceutical company in India, said he wanted the Domino's job because "my heart was deeply involved in selling."

He still has the newspaper advertisement seeking applicants. It says that "the sky's the limit" and that the person hired could eventually make $75,000 a year.

Kohli said the man who interviewed him told him, " 'I can give you this job, but I have a problem. We allow no beards, from the chairman right down to the last person. That's our corporate image.'

"I told him, 'I can't shave because of my religion.' He sent me home and said, 'If you change your mind, let me know.' The job slipped through my hands. I came back home, and I was in tears," Kohli said in an interview last week at his home.

Rebuffed by a lawyer at Domino's corporate headquarters, Kohli filed a discrimination complaint with the state's Human Relations Commission and hired a lawyer to pursue the case.

He said that if he can be denied the Domino's position, other members of his family could also be denied opportunities because of their religion or race.

Kohli, who wears his beard rolled up neatly and tied under his chin, has been inspecting highway construction projects for the State Highway Administration.

He said the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made an exception for his religious needs that allows him to wear a turban instead of a hard hat on construction sites.

Kohli said the Domino's case is his only experience with racial or religious discrimination since he brought his family to the United States.

"In our community, we're very accepted. Most of my friends are black and white Americans. I have no problem as a Sikh in America," he said.

Kohli wonders why Domino's continues to fight him even though it settled a 1993 federal court case by allowing black men with skin ailments to keep their beards.

"What would be the harm?" in settling his case, he wonders.

Kohli believes he will win in the end.

"They feel a small man can't beat them. But I think I can," he said.

Pub Date: 10/27/97

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