USA Today: Prayer leads to work disputes

Requests by Muslims to pray at work have led to clashes with employers who say they cannot accommodate the strictly scheduled prayers.

The conflicts raise questions about religious rights on the job. Muslims say they are being discriminated against and are taking their complaints to the courts and the federal government. Employers say the time out for prayer can burden other workers and disrupt operations

Disputes boiled over at two JBS Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in September during the holy month of Ramadan.

In Grand Island, Neb., Muslim workers, most of them Somali immigrants, wanted their regular break to coincide with the sunset prayer and the end of the daily Ramadan fast. After they walked out, managers agreed to move the break time

When non-Muslim workers protested what they called preferential treatment, the plant returned to its original schedule. On Sept. 19, 76 workers — most of them Muslims — were fired because they left work without authorization to pray or protest, JBS Swift says.

In Greeley, Colo., 96 workers were fired under similar circumstances, the firm says. The United Food and Commercial Workers union has different figures: 81 in Grand Island and 108 in Greeley.

“They shouldn’t be forced to choose between their job and their religion,” says Rima Kapitan, an attorney who represents Muslim workers in Grand Island.

She is filing federal and state discrimination complaints. Denver attorney Diane King, who represents about 70 of the Greeley workers, says she plans to file complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Last year, 2,880 complaints of religious discrimination were filed with the EEOC, which enforces federal employment discrimination laws. Muslims filed 607 of them, more than double the annual number a decade ago. The agency had 82,792 complaints of workplace discrimination of all kinds in 2007.

The Muslim complaints allege violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says employers must make a “reasonable” attempt to accommodate religious practices “unless doing so would pose an undue hardship,” the EEOC says. “Undue hardship” means the accommodation would pose more than a minimal cost or burden to the employer, the commission says.

Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal organization, says his group has represented Christians and Jews who wanted Saturdays or Sundays off to worship.

He says some requests by Muslims for prayer time may be unreasonable because of the frequency. Muslims pray five times a day at specific times, which shift over the course of the year based on the sun’s position. Each prayer takes five to 10 minutes.

“The problem with the Muslim prayer request is that it’s not one day or annual,” Staver says. “It’s every day and multiple times.”

The EEOC helped Gold’n Plump reach a preliminary settlement with some workers at its poultry processing plants in Cold Spring, Minn., and Arcadia, Wis. The workers, most of them Somali immigrants, say they were disciplined or fired for praying. The settlement is pending court approval.

Company spokeswoman Lexann Pryd-Kakuk says Gold’n Plump has agreed to give all employees, not just Muslims, two 10-minute breaks instead of one 15-minute break. The additional break “roughly coincides with prayer times,” she says.

There has been no resolution at a Celestica electronics plant in Arden Hills, Minn., where 22 Ethiopian and Somali immigrants filed a lawsuit saying they were disciplined or fired for leaving the production line to pray.

“The company had a prayer room for them to use, but stopped letting them use it,” attorney Jim Kaster says.

In a statement, Celestica called the allegations “totally without merit.” The company “has made considerable efforts to ensure that the religious needs of all our employees are met,” it says.

In Greeley and Grand Island, JBS Swift officials say workers who walked off the job “put an additional burden on those employees still working on the production line,” according to a written statement.

“We work closely with all employees and union representation to accommodate religious practices in a reasonable, safe and fair manner,” the statement says.

Abdi Mohamed, 28, came to the USA as a refugee from Somalia a year ago. For most of his eight months at the Grand Island plant, his boss let him slip away for seven minutes at sunset to pray in the locker room, allowing him to balance his job cutting beef with a tenet of Islam.

“Anytime I’m not (praying), I’m damaging my relationship with God,” he says through a translator.

Mohamed, who lost his job Sept. 19, says he plans to file a discrimination complaint. “We are refugees to this country,” he says, “and now we are made to be refugees within America.”

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