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Muslim: Gym booted me over head covering

— Follow up story: Planet Fitness says scarves allowed

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The national gym chain Planet Fitness has trademarked the phrase “Judgment Free Zone,” but it didn’t really seem that way to Tarainia McDaniel when she was barred from entering a gym on Irving Boulevard on Albuquerque’s West Side.

The reason: The head covering she was wearing as part of her Muslim faith, which requires women to cover their hair, didn’t meet the gym’s dress code.

McDaniel alleges in a lawsuit filed by her attorney, Rachel Higgins, that she explained the requirements of her religion but was told only that she could wear a baseball cap.

Planet Fitness attorney Erika Anderson said, “My client’s position is that they didn’t know the head covering was for religious purposes. It violated their dress code policy.” She said she could not comment further on pending litigation.

The case is scheduled for an August bench trial before District Judge Beatrice Brickhouse.

According to McDaniel’s lawsuit, when she joined Planet Fitness on a two-year contract she typically went to the Coors location. When the gym on Irving opened, she began going there because it was closer to her home.

On Oct. 3, 2011, she entered the gym as she had many times before and was turned away, the lawsuit says. She requested an accommodation based on her religious requirements and suggested that she could perhaps go home and come back with the hijab, the formal head covering, instead of what she was wearing, it says.

McDaniel told employees she would have to cancel her membership and was informed she would have to do so at the Coors location and pay a cancellation fee, the lawsuit claims.

At the Coors gym, an employee said the dress code was sometimes waived but that it couldn’t be in her case because the head covering was red, according to the complaint.

McDaniel’s civil lawsuit, filed under the New Mexico Human Rights Act and the Unfair Practices Act, alleges Planet Fitness illegally based the decision to deny her access upon her religion, or alternatively upon her race – she is African American – and that the gym had no legitimate or non-pretextual reason to deny her entry.

Planet Fitness, in its formal answer to the claims, denies violations of either the Human Rights Act or Unfair Practices Act. It says McDaniel failed to participate in good faith and that the company has legitimate business reasons for its practice as well as measures to prevent discrimination.

McDaniel, a married mother of children ages 5 and 7, is a financial consultant and business owner who does job recruitment and placement for Fortune 500 companies, according to a deposition in the case.

Besides operating her sole-proprietor business, she is working on a dual bachelor’s and master’s degree program in business and finance at the University of New Mexico.

She did not grow up practicing Islam. McDaniel’s parents were Roman Catholic and Jehovah’s Witness, and she converted at age 16 while attending Sidwell Friends School in the Washington, D.C., area, according to statements in her deposition.

She is raising her children as Muslims.

According to her deposition, the Quran “is pretty specific on covering your hair” and dressing modestly in clothes that fit loosely.

In the deposition, Anderson asked if McDaniel recalled a sign posted at Planet Fitness that said “no jeans, work boots, bandanas, skull caps or revealing apparel.”

According to the transcript, McDaniel acknowledged seeing the sign, but added, “I already (had) made it known before I signed the contract that I covered my hair. I had on (what) I call a head covering. I guess for the sake of the record, they’re referring to it as a head covering.”

When Anderson asked if she told them she was Muslim, McDaniel replied, “I sure did.”