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Former student blows the horn on Disney World

A former USF student is suing Walt Disney World for discrimination.

Sukhbir Channa, a 24-year-old who graduated from USF in spring 2007 with a degree in trumpet performance, is a practicing member of the Sikh religion who kept his long hair under a turban – or dastaar – and grew a beard in accordance with his beliefs. He claims that Disney fired him because he did not conform to the “Disney look,” according to court documents. He is asking for $1 million in damages and a trial by jury.

The Disney look requires employees to keep their mustaches “neatly trimmed” and prohibits “beards, goatees and any extreme mustache style,” according to Disney’s Web site. All headwear must be issued by the costuming department.

In October 2005, Channa was hired as a seasonal trumpet player for parade and atmospheric positions. During the parades, he wore a toy soldier hat that covered his head. For the atmospheric position, in which a musician interacts with the audience, Disney suggested that Channa wear a red turban instead of the usual red beret. Channa agreed, but was removed from the atmospheric position by his manager before his first scheduled appearance because he lacked the Disney look. He was terminated in early 2006, when his seasonal contract ended.

In October 2006, Channa reapplied for the same position and was told he was very qualified but still lacked the Disney look. He was not rehired.

Channa’s “look problem” refers to his turban and beard, according to court documents.

“There is some confusion on what this look actually is,” Channa said. “If it isn’t suitable, why, in the first place, was I hired?”

Channa said he was apprehensive about auditioning for Disney because he was aware of its strict appearance policy. When he auditioned, however, he said the Disney representatives were very accommodating.

“After that, I was really gung-ho. I was treated great after that, up until about a month and a half into it,” he said.

Matthew Sarelson, Channa’s lawyer, said that any private employer is allowed to have grooming standards, but they must not pass the extent of federal and state law. The lawsuit claims that Disney’s standards go beyond the law.

“It would appear that that’s what’s going on in this case,” he said. “The turban violated the Disney look and that’s why he was told ‘we can’t hire you.'”

Jacquee Polak, spokeswoman for Disney, said that Channa never sought reemployment with Disney after October 2005.

“His claim that he did and was denied employment is without merit,” she said in a statement. “We value and respect diversity in our cast members and treat each request for an accommodation individually. The type of accommodation varies with the particular request, job and location and costuming requirement.”

Channa said he is disappointed by the situation and finds it very adverse.

“It’s really unfortunate that here we are in 2008 and companies that are doing a good job to promote cultural diversity in today’s society get caught up in little discrepancies,” he said. “In the end, it was really insulting.”

The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday against Disney citing religious discrimination against Channa and the Sikh community.