“I was taught, even in the military, to do the right thing,” Frank MahoneyBurroughs said. “We were told that doing the right thing, even when no one is around, defines your character.”
In December of 2009, MahoneyBurroughs, 24, was told by his employer, AutoZone in Everett, that his turban and religious bracelet — or dastaar and kara — worn by practitioners of the Sikh religion violated the company dress code policy.
His manager asked him to comply with the dress code and replace his dastaar with a black hat, but MahoneyBurroughs cited his religious beliefs and refused. He was then fired.
He said that his refusal to remove his turban and bracelet was an act he didn’t question. Standing up for the right thing was worth it, he said.
“A lot of people don’t stand up for themselves these days,” he said, “and when you don’t, it makes it harder for other people to take a stance.”
Winthrop resident MahoneyBurroughs was employed with AutoZone from July 2007 to December 2009, taking only a brief break to join the Marine Corps. Upon a six-month absence and medical discharge from the Marines, he was welcomed back as an employee of the store.
During that time period, AutoZone’s dress code policy remained unchanged. The policy mandated that store employees were required to wear a uniform consisting of a red or grey “golf style” or button-down shirt, black pants or skirt and solid black shoes. Employees were allowed only two types of head covering, either a black baseball cap with the AutoZone logo, or a solid black knit cap. Bracelets were not permitted unless medically necessary.
In 2009, MahoneyBurroughs chose to convert to the Sikh religion. Prior to his conversion, he informed his managers, and in the fall of 2009, when he officially adopted the religion, he took on the traditional wardrobe practices.
He chose to leave all of his hair uncut and wrap it underneath his dastaar as well as wear a kara bracelet. More than 20 million people practice the Sikh religion, making it the fifth largest religion worldwide. Yet MahoneyBurroughs’ manager asked for written proof that the religion required that attire. When he refused to provide proof of his religion, he was fired.
According to MahoneyBurroughs’ deposition to the courts, as described in a legal fact sheet filed on November 30, 2011, he was harassed by his employer and coworkers after telling them that he had planned to convert to the Sikh religion.
He told the courts that when he informed his store manager that part of his religious conversion included wearing a dastaar, he was asked, “Have you joined al-Qaeda? Are you going to blow up the store?’”
MahoneyBurroughs also said that he was teased, told that he was only wearing a turban to try and get a girlfriend and that a sales manager repeatedly called him “Sikhi” and “Punjabi King” in a condescending tone. When he finally came to work wearing his dastaar, his manager threatened to throw him out of the store because he refused the two options he was given: to either remove his turban or clock out.
AutoZone’s human resources department then was brought into the dispute, and they asked MahoneyBurroughs to provide documentation of the importance of the dastaar before they would make a wardrobe exception.
He asked his local gurdwara, or place of worship, to write a letter on his behalf, as well as send information to AutoZone describing the religious attire. Uncomfortable with the request, a member of his gurdwara emailed the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund describing the situation.
Soon after, on Nov. 28, 2009, tired from being harassed by managers, MahoneyBurroughs reported the harassment to human resources. They opened an investigation and interviewed nine coworkers and three managers about the derogatory remarks. While only a few remarks could be corroborated, and none in the detail that MahoneyBurroughs described in his deposition to the courts, human resources decided to write up two managers and recommend diversity training to all three, including his district manager. Furthermore, the entire Everett store received a review of “Diversity” and “Respect in the Workplace” policies in December of 2009.
On December 22, 2009, MahoneyBurroughs was given a one-week final notice to provide documentation of his religious attire to AutoZone headquarters in Memphis, and he was informed that if this was not possible, he should either wear a black hat or no longer come in to work. Unable to provide documentation, MahoneyBurroughs was terminated due to “job abandonment.”
In September 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, joined by MahoneyBurroughs, filed a lawsuit against AutoZone in the United States District Court of Massachusetts. He was represented by the Sikh Coalition and the Boston area Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
For more than a year, MahoneyBurroughs argued his case and waited while his life was on hold. He said that this experience was extremely difficult. “I didn’t sleep well,” he said, “I couldn’t even go to school.”
Earlier this year, on January 11, 2012, Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge William Young ruled in favor of MahoneyBurroughs. AutoZone was ordered to pay a settlement of $75,000 plus attorney fees, notify all of their employees about the case and settlement as well as create a formal religious accommodation policy.
When MahoneyBurroughs learned about the settlement, he said he “almost wanted to cry tears of joy.”
He is happy that he is now able to move forward in his life. He said he wants to become a lawyer and plans to go back to school.
He said that if he could pass on a lesson learned from this experience, he would say to “people who are being discriminated against for age, sex, religion, have the courage to stand up for themselves. That if they don’t understand something that they learn what it’s all about … And fight for your rights.”
“This is America,” MahoneyBurroughs said, “the land of opportunity.”