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Garrett mayor apologizes for dumping Sikh religious pamphlets

Thursday, September 6, 2012 - 1:06 pm

GARRETT – The mayor of Garrett apologized to a local business owner Monday for an incident Aug. 28 in which she threw away a small stack of religious pamphlets in front of a cash register at Garrett Quickway, 608 S. Randolph St.

“It was a mistake,” Mayor Tonya Hoeffel, 49, said Tuesday. “It was an unrighteous act. I gave them my sincere apology.”

The literature at the convenience store contained information on the Sikh religion. It was placed there by the store manager and part-owner. Hoeffel said she threw it away out of a lack of personal interest, not to make any sort of statement about the religion.

According to surveillance video, Hoeffel went into the store at approximately 12:55 p.m. Aug. 28. She purchased a soft drink, then walked away from the counter. She returned, grabbed the small stack of pamphlets at the counter, carried the pamphlets outside and threw them into the trash.

The manager of Quickway, Kulwinder Nagra, 38, said he went outside to ask why Hoeffel took all four of the pamphlets that had been in front of the register.

“She said, 'It's against my beliefs,'” Nagra said. “She said, 'This is against Christianity.'”

“I reject discrimination for any reason,” Hoeffel said in a statement Tuesday, “and truly believe the only way that God can work within us is to be humble while fully realizing that we all need each other, with our father as the lead in all things. I am sorrier than words can even begin to express for having offended the Sikhs' community, and embrace their forgiveness.”

The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak in the 16th century, according to the literature. Sikhs believe in one God who is eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, fearless and is not incarnate. Sikhs believe in the equality of all human beings and stresses gender equity. Sharing earnings with the poor and needy is a fundamental principle of Sikhism.

“I read it before,” Hoeffel said of the literature at the store. “I just grabbed what was there. I just decided I didn't want it.”

Hoeffel said she was not acting in any official capacity when she threw away the literature.

“I was there as an individual, not as a representative” of the city, she said. A Republican, she was elected mayor in November after serving six years on the city council.

Nagra, who was born in India, has operated Quickway for two years. He said he decided to put out the literature after a shooting Aug. 5 in Oak Creek, Wis. In that incident, a gunman opened fire at a Sikh temple, killing six people and critically wounding three others.

“I just wanted to let people know who I am,” Nagra said. “After 9/11, there was a lot of misunderstanding.”

Hoeffel called Nagra on Thursday and a meeting was arranged to discuss what had happened. She and Garrett City Councilman Brad Stump met with Nagra and two of his business partners Monday.

“I personally believe if you do something wrong, you go to that person,” Hoeffel said. “I apologized for offending them. I said I know they are a peaceful people.”

The city does business with another Sikh-owned convenience store in town, and Hoeffel said she and her family often go to the Garrett Quickway.

“I frequent them a lot,” she said. “We will continue to do so.”

Nagra said his religion teaches forgiveness, and as far as he is concerned, the issue was resolved when Hoeffel apologized.

“She said she was sorry,” he said. “I don't want to make a big issue out of it.”

Nagra said his family and business have been welcomed in Garrett.

“Everybody is so friendly,” Nagra said. “We've never had any incidents.”