- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mickey has the look. Donald has the look. Even Jafar has the look.

Sukhbir Channa, however, does not have the look.

The Sikh musician has filed a $1 million class-action discrimination suit against Walt Disney World, claiming the Florida theme park denied him employment because his religion requires him to wear a beard and a dastaar — a turban — which ultimately compromised company dress code.

Mr. Channa aspired to play the trumpet, dressed as a toy soldier in the Disney Christmas show.

In his claim, Mr. Channa said he “did not fit the Disney image” and was told by a hiring manager that he had a “look problem” that was incompatible with a Disney cast member.

The musician initially was hired in 2005 on the condition he wear a red turban to match the crimson berets of his fellow performers. He later was told to shave his beard and was dismissed after three months, according to the claim. Mr. Channa reapplied for the job in writing but to no avail.

Disney rejected Mr. Channa’s claim. There was no record of his application. He was never denied employment and the case is “without merit,” said spokeswoman Jacquee Polak, who added that the company values diversity in their performers.

Disney was recently named No. 1 on a list of “Best Places to Launch a Career” by Business Week and has a spectrum of hiring philosophies, public service initiatives, corporate responsibility statements and brand image management posted on its corporate Web site.

The company has been a litigation magnet over the years, attracting myriad lawsuits from former employees, musicians and interest groups.

Disney was sued by the Hell’s Angels in 2006 for infringing on their copyrighted logo. A group of disabled patrons sued last year because the park banned their Segway transports from the grounds for safety reasons.

But the case of the rejected toy soldier has gotten new marching orders.

“Sikhs across the United States are often forced by employers and prospective employers to choose between religious freedom and a job, often told to remove their turbans, shave their beards or surrender other mandatory articles of faith to pursue career opportunities,” the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has taken up Mr. Channa’s cause, said in a statement released Tuesday.

“It is also hypocritical for Disney to make millions of dollars promoting cartoon characters that wear turbans and simultaneously reject the right of an employee to wear a turban in accordance with his faith,” said Manjit Singh, chairman of the D.C. group.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee took Disney to task in 1995 for song lyrics and “Arab stereotypes” in “Aladdin,” the animated blockbuster that earned the company more than $500 million. Disney changed the offensive lyrics but paid a cultural price of sorts in retaining the character of Jafar, a remorseless and ill-tempered character with swarthy skin, a heavy accent and turban.

Two years ago, “Aladdin” was included in “The 25 Most Controversial Movies Ever” list compiled by Entertainment Weekly.

Miami attorney Matt Sarelson, who is representing Mr. Channa, added his own piquancy to the proceedings, noting that as a Jew, he would be offended if Disney barred employees from wearing yarmulkes.

The popular press already is at work though — the case was billed as “Mickey doesn’t wear turbans” on Tuesday by TMZ, the cheeky tabloid TV show.

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