Muslims Make Headway in Gaining Religious Rights in the Workplace

November 15, 2000

Source: The Financial Times

On November 15, 2000, The Financial Times reported that "Rasheedah Shahid, a 21-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, thought she had the perfect part-time job. As a ticket sales representative at Disney-quest, an indoor interactive theme park in Chicago, she would make some money, have the chance to buy shares in the company and receive free tickets for her family. But on her first day of work, when the time came to take her employee ID photograph, the human resources representative told her to take off her hijab, or religious headscarf. When she refused, she says, she was escorted out of the building and told she could not take the job because she did not fit the "American look". She called her lawyer and they decided to file a lawsuit claiming religious discrimination...A growing Muslim population in the US is making itself known in the workplace. Ms Shahid's case highlights a trend. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government body that reviews all federal civil rights cases before they go to trial, reports that charges of religious bias filed by Muslims more than doubled between 1992 and 1999. In that time, the total number of charges of religious bias increased by a third. Experts say that is, in part, due to the increase in the number of Muslims in the US. The White House says there are now an estimated 6m Muslims in the country, an increase from about 1m 10 years ago. Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the US and has probably surpassed Judaism as the second most popular, according to Muslim organisations. The growth stemmed primarily from the influx of political and economic refugees from Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq - groups that increased significantly in the 1990s, according to the US Immigra tion and Naturalisation Service. Compared with the Muslims who arrived in the 1960s, after an immigration act had been passed, these immigrants are generally stricter in their beliefs and are more openly observant about their religious practice - even in the workplace. 'Those who came in the 60s and the 70s . . . melted into the pot as quickly as they could,' says Abdurahman Alamoudi, a board member of the American Muslim Council, an activist group for the Islamic community based in Washington DC. 'Now, because of the growth of Islamic centres, mosques and (other) new institutions to help Muslims, there is some boldness . . . some showing of their faith, if you will.' Besides wearing a headscarf, employers and Muslims have clashed over whether men should be able to wear a beard in a workplace whose policy is to forbid facial hair. Several airlines and transport companies, including UPS, US Airways, Delta Airlines and American Airlines, have been involved in such charges and the EEOC is suing FedEx for not allowing a Muslim to wear a beard, a common Islamic religious practice. Other charges, including one in Atlanta against Hertz, the car rental company, by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), also based in Washington DC, have turned on whether a woman should be able to dress modestly in loose-fitting clothes in a workplace that requires uniforms. The practice of Muslim worship, which can require five short prayer sessions a day, has also been an issue for some companies. US civil rights law says that employers must make reasonable accommodation for employees' religious practices and beliefs, unless it causes the employer undue hardship - a standard that is now set at just above a minimal financial burden. According to Ms Shahid, Disney offered her a position that paid the same as the one she had applied for but did not include dealing with the public. Lawyers say that offer might or might not have been enough to meet the accommodation standard, had the case gone to court...In a sign that Muslims are gaining some ground, President Bill Clinton in 1997 implemented the Workplace Religion Policy, guaranteeing that Muslims who worked for the federal government would be able to pray during the day and wear a hijab in the workplace. In addition, Senator Spencer Abraham, a Republican from Michigan, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in the country, recently introduced a resolution 'supporting religious tolerance toward Muslims' in the Senate. Leaders of the Muslim community say their goal is education. The number of Muslims in the US has increased so quickly in the past decade, they say, that employers are still unsure how to incorporate Islamic beliefs into the workplace...Still, Muslim leaders say that employers have generally been receptive to their requests. Solectron, a California-based electronics supplier, for instance, recently came to an agreement with more than 30 Muslim employees in a plant near Atlanta, Georgia. They had resigned after the company had said it could not allow obligatory Islamic prayers during work breaks. The agreement included breaks designed to coincide with sunset prayers, 'quiet rooms' for prayer and bathrooms to allow employees to wash beforehand. Others say that the acceptance of Muslims is only a matter of time. 'These people don't drink, they don't smoke, they don't steal . . . they are very punctual . . . they make great employees,' says Martin McMahon, a lawyer in Washington DC who has represented Muslims. 'But it is all part of America getting used to having Muslims in the workplace. In two years, this won't be anything.'"