WHAT’S NEXT?

So Now Muslims Can Be Fired for Praying?

A Cargill plant in Colorado had always permitted its Muslim employees prayer breaks. But why were 190 of them suddenly fired?

01.05.16 5:01 AM ET

If 190 Christians were fired en masse from their jobs for wanting to pray for a few minutes, there would be outrage! Franklin Graham would be screaming from the rooftops. Fox News would break into its coverage of Christian victimization to do a special report on it. And, of course, GOP presidential candidates like Ted Cruz would be calling this a “jihad” on Christians, just as he has used that term to attack LGBT advocates of marriage equality.

But when 190 Muslims were fired from their jobs in Colorado a few weeks ago for simply wanting to take short prayer breaks, we didn’t hear a peep from these so-called advocates of religious liberty.

But that probably comes as little surprise to most. Religious liberty—in the view of some on the right—is only for Christians. In fact, a poll released last week made that very point. It found that 82 percent of Americans believe preserving religious liberty for Christians was important. However, only 61 percent said the same about Muslim’s rights to practice their faith. (That number was even lower among Republicans.)

The poll also found that only about 70 percent of Americans believe that religious liberty for Jews was important, meaning that there are roughly 70 million adult Americans who don’t view Judaism as being on equal footing as Christianity. This again proves that when some talk about Judeo-Christian values, the Christian part of that phrase far outweighs the “Judeo” part.

Thankfully for Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and people of other minority faiths, or no faith, we are statutorily guaranteed religious liberty at the workplace by way of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This iconic law states, among other things, that employers are required to provide a “reasonable accommodation” so that employees can practice his or her faith.

Now that doesn’t mean that the employer has to accommodate every religion-related request a person makes. If the accommodation will cause an “undue hardship” on the employer, they don’t have to grant it.

Obviously such a determination is fact specific. But the EEOC has provided a few examples of typical religious accommodations. These include if an employee needs an exception from the company’s dress code for religious reasons, such as an Orthodox Jew wearing a yarmulke. Another was a Christian employee at a pharmacy not be required to fill birth control prescriptions. Or an atheist being excused from the religious invocation at the beginning of a staff meeting.

Well, that brings us to the case of the 190 Muslim employees who were recently fired by Cargill Meat Solutions at its Fort Morgan, Colorado, plant. Now just so it’s clear, Cargill is not some horrible anti-Muslim company. To the contrary, for years Cargill has accommodated the Muslim workers who wanted to take short breaks for their daily prayers. (Devout Muslims will pray five times a day.)

But still at the end of the day there are 190 Muslims, mostly United States citizens, who were fired because of their desire to practice to faith and take two to three short breaks during the day to pray.

Jaylani Hussein, a spokesman for and an executive director of the Council of American Islamic Relations Minnesota chapter, explained to me that Cargill had for years allowed the Muslim employees to take prayer breaks at this location with relatively no issues. And keep in mind the Muslim employees would work on the Christian holidays so that the Christian employees could practice their faith.

But a few weeks ago a dispute arose when a supervisor apparently told workers they could no longer pick their own break time to pray, but instead would need the permission of a supervisor to go pray. When some of the Muslim employees pressed the supervisor about when he would release them to pray, they were reportedly told by the supervisor: “If you want to pray, go home.”

That sparked a walkout by some Muslim employees. Thereafter hundreds of them remained home in protest of what they viewed as Cargill revoking their religious accommodation to pray. Cargill then fired 190 Muslim employees who refused to return to work until they were provided assurances that they could take prayer breaks.

A Cargill spokesperson responded on Twitter to me that the company respected people’s right to pray and noted that “our Muslim employees are still taking prayer breaks at work.”

From an outsider’s point of view, you would think this would be an easy case to resolve. But as former trial lawyer I can tell you that this is a typical scenario where the parties are not that far apart but still a resolution can’t be reached.

So here the parties are, stuck at this impasse. As of Monday, Hussein was still in talks with Cargill. He did lament that while the employees are part of the Teamsters union (it’s a mandatory join), the union has refused to help. Hussein even traveled to the union’s local office but was told by the representative that he had no time to talk for the foreseeable future. Translation: The union didn’t believe it was important enough to expend capital in fighting for the rights of the Muslim employees to pray.

The hope, as Hussein noted, was to resolve this dispute amicably, which is typically how most religious-accommodations cases end up. But if that doesn’t happen, they will certainly explore their legal rights provided by the Civil Rights Act. And given recent polls that show barely a majority of Americans support religious liberty for Muslims, it makes me appreciate even more the wisdom of the drafters of that landmark law who had the foresight to ensure that our right to religious liberty is not subject to a popularity contest.