Does Religious Liberty Apply to Muslims?
Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are outraged over the “persecution” of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis over her Christian beliefs. The war on religious liberty is in full swing per this dynamic duo. But we don’t hear a peep from these two self-appointed defenders of religious liberty in the case of a Muslim American flight attendant who was suspended from her job two weeks ago for not wanting to serve alcoholic drinks in violation of her faith.
Do you think Huckabee and Cruz stand up for “religious liberty” only when it helps their quest for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination? Or do they not believe that Muslims are entitled to religious liberty? Possibly it’s a little of both.
Now just so it’s clear, from a legal point of view, the cases of the Muslim American flight attendant, Charee Stanley, and Davis are completely different. Davis is an elected official who not only refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, she also prohibited five other clerks in her office from issuing marriage licenses even though they had no religious objections. Her actions prevented the local government agency from fulfilling one of its primary responsibilities.
In Stanley’s case, she was not seeking to prevent the airline from serving alcohol to all passengers on flights she worked. Rather, Stanley, who had been hired three years ago by Atlanta-based airline carrier Express Jet, asked her employer if other flight attendants could serve alcoholic drinks to passengers instead of her because it violated her religious beliefs. As New York City’s Imam Shamsi Ali explained, not only is drinking alcohol a sin to Muslims, “helping others drink alcohol is a sin itself.” Ali did note there are some Islamic scholars who believe it’s permissible to serve alcohol if it’s an obligation of your job.
So what happens when your religious beliefs and your job responsibilities collide? Then you do exactly what Stanley did and ask your employer for a “religious accommodation,” which is guaranteed to employees under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This federal statute requires employers covered by the law, like Express Jet, to “reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on” the operation of the business.
In fact, Express Jet agreed in June to the accommodation that Stanley proposed, and all was working well. That is until last month when a coworker filed a complaint alleging that Stanley was not fulfilling her job responsibilities because she would not serve alcohol. The coworker’s complaint also spoke of concerns about Stanley wearing a Muslim headdress (hijab) and reading books with “foreign writings,” which may give you a better sense of what is at play here.
On August 24, Express Jet formally notified Stanley that it was revoking the religious accommodation it had granted and placed her on administrative leave as precursor to terminating her employment. Consequently, Stanley filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with the help of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The legal question in this matter is simple: Is Stanley’s proposed religious accommodation of having another flight attendant serve passengers alcohol imposing an “undue hardship” upon Express Jet, a midsize company with 8,500 employees that flies to 179 airports? If the burden on the company is only minimal (in terms of money and/or operationally), the court will, in all likelihood, order the employer to offer the employee a reasonable religious accommodation.
In Stanley’s case, simply having another flight attendant serve alcohol appears to be as minimal as you can get. It would be no different than not requiring a Christian pharmacist to personally dispense birth control pills if it violated their religious beliefs and instead having other employees do that. In fact, that very scenario is one of the examples given by the EEOC in its guidelines for employers on when they should grant a “religious accommodation.”
Huckabee and Cruz not showing any concern for a Muslim trying to defend her religious liberty is not surprising to me. We all understand politics. What was more surprising was the reaction of many Muslim Americans to this issue when I asked for their views on social media.
I received nearly 100 responses that spanned the gambit. There was the unsurprising, “I wouldn’t take a job that compromises my religious values in the first place” reaction. The more unexpected response, however, was the large number of Muslim American who said in essence: “If it was part of my job description, I would serve it. They’re not asking me to drink it!”
And then there were some in the middle who had worked out their own accommodations at the workplace. For example, one person who commented, “When I was in the U.S. Army, part of my job in the kitchen was serving food. I told my sergeant that I couldn’t serve pork. He simply moved me to a job in the kitchen were I didn’t have to serve pork.”
And some Muslims responded that they drank alcohol, so who cares about serving it.
Sometimes I even forget the wide range of views in my community from progressive to conservative to even the growing number of Muslims whose connection to Islam is more cultural than religious.
At this point, Kim Davis is free from jail, and a de facto religious accommodation has been found: She will not have to issue marriage licenses, but her deputy clerks who don’t have a religious objection will. Perhaps Stanley will have her religious liberty protected as well. As Stanley’s lawyer, Lena Masri, pointed out to me, “The importance of ensuring accommodations for one religious group ensures rights are protected across all faith groups.” I can only hope that Christians like Huckabee and Cruz believed the same thing.