When 13-year-old Noorah Abdo went with her family in August to the Boomers amusement park in Livermore, the ride she especially looked forward to was the go-karts.
But when she got to the ticket window, she was told her head scarf, which she wore for religious reasons as a Muslim, violated the park’s no-headwear safety policy for that ride.
Her father, Nasir, protested, proposing to cover Noorah’s head with a helmet or a hoodie, but said a manager told him there were no exceptions. They were shown a policy statement, which read, in part, “If fashion, religious expression or your hair style is more important to you than safety, that’s fine. You can do what you want with your life. You just can’t do it at our park.”
California’s civil rights agency may have a different view. The state, which has one of the nation’s strongest laws protecting business customers from discrimination, is being asked to intervene on behalf of Noorah and others barred from Boomers’ go-karts because of their religious attire.
“They made me feel as if they viewed my head scarf as some sort of fashion statement. … It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t just,” Noorah, a Sunnyvale middle-school student, said at a news conference in Santa Clara, where Islamic and Sikh organizations announced the filing of discrimination complaints against Boomers and its parent company, Palace Entertainment.
“Companies cannot utilize baseless safety concerns to discriminate against thousands of people,” said Brice Hamack, a lawyer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. During six to eight months of fruitless negotiations, he said, Boomers presented no evidence that Muslim head scarves or Sikh turbans posed safety hazards or had caused accidents or injuries.
In response, Michele Wischmeyer, Palace Entertainment’s vice president of marketing, said the policy was entirely motivated by safety. “This is not a matter of race or religion,” she said.
Wischmeyer said she was unaware of any headwear-related accidents at Boomers parks, but there had been some at other amusement parks. Boomers’ policy statement says go-kart riders in other countries have been choked to death when their scarves got tangled in the wheels or engine.
The policy doesn’t discriminate on its face – it prohibits all headwear, including caps, visors and headphones as well as religious coverings. But Hamack said it has a discriminatory impact because Muslims and Sikhs have a religious duty to keep their heads covered, while other patrons can choose to take off their caps or headphones.
“A turban is different than a cap,” said Harbinder Bains of Alameda, who took his children, ages 10 to 26, to the Livermore amusement park in July and saw them turned away because they wore turbans mandated by their Sikh religion.
Disneyland, Great America and other parks have no such restrictions, Hamack said. He noted that Boomers allows long-haired customers to ride go-karts if they secure their hair with rubber bands, which the park provides. The distinction, Wischmeyer said, is that “your hair is actually connected to you.”
She said she knew of no previous legal challenge to the company policy, which has been in effect since 2010 – although Bains said there were no such restrictions when he took his family to the park in 2012.
The complaints, against Boomers parks in Livermore and Irvine, were filed with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing. If the department investigates and finds discrimination, it can order the company to change its policy and sue if it refuses.
See also “CAIR-CA: Muslim, Sikh groups file discrimination complaints against Boomers!”, CAIR press release, 29 April 2014