Eight Muslim cab drivers in Orlando, Fla., claim their employer prohibited them from praying during work hours, and even assaulted and fired one of them for doing so. Now they're filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that they were discriminated against on the basis of their religion and national origin.
The eight Arab-American employees worked for Star Taxi, a member of the Transtar Transportation Group, which provides taxi, luxury SUV and limousine services in the Orlando area. They allege that various supervisors told them that they would be fired if they were caught praying at any of the company's service stations, even though employees of other faiths regularly prayed and read religious material.
"When other employees are allowed to go on a smoke break, or read the Bible, Muslim employees are prohibited from praying," said Hassan Shibly, one of the attorneys representing the men. He's also the executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights group in the U.S. "They're making them choose between their religion and supporting their families. It's crazy," Shibly explained.
One manager, Laura Jackson, allegedly told other employees at the company to let her know if they saw Muslim employees praying, and to take a photo if possible. Mohamed Foued Benhassine, one of the plaintiffs, who worked at Star Taxi since July 2011, claims this policy -- which his supervisors refused to provide in writing -- left him "feeling like an outcast in society, unwelcomed because of my religion, and suffering from tremendous guilt and emotional distress...."
On Jan. 8, Benhassine says that he went on his break to one of his usual secret prayer spots, by an outlet mall's dumpster. He says another employee saw him doing this and told Benhassine that he was breaking the rules and that he would have to report him to Jackson, then his co-worker snapped a photo.
Jackson allegedly came outside, and tried to snatch Benhassine's taxi keys from his hand. "He said, 'This is my right. This is America,'" says Shibly.
She continued to "attack" him, Benhassine claims, and threatened to tow his cab, with all his belongings in it, unless he handed over the keys. He relented.
"Legally, that's assault," says Shibly.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it's illegal for employers to discriminate against anyone on the basis of his or her religion, which means making "reasonable accommodation" for any religious needs. "They're not asking for accommodation," says Shibly. "Their prayers only take around five minutes. They're asking not to be harassed."
Last October, 26 Muslim drivers for the rental car company Hertz similarly claimed that they were unfairly fired for praying. Hertz said, however, that the problem was that the drivers would clock-out for their prayers, and not return on time. The Star Taxi drivers, on the other hand, say their prayers in no way interfere with their work.
The plaintiffs also claim that they were prohibited from speaking in a language that wasn't English at any time, with an automatic $25 fine if they did so.
"They came to this country because of religious freedom," says Shibly. "It's shameful this is happening in America."
Transtar Transportation Group could not be reached for comment.
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