Two weeks ago, an employee at Diane's Fine Desserts in Le Center, Minn., got her long skirt stuck in a boot washer. She wasn't injured, but her employer decided to take precautions anyway: No more dresses below the knee. In response, over 30 employees walked out on the job. They're Somali Muslims, and consider hijabs, traditional long dresses with headscarves, worn by some Muslim women, an important religious observance.
"Our religion is a priority," Fartun Husien, (pictured left) who has worked for the company for two years, told TV station KARE. "We feel hurt; we feel this is not right." Some of the workers even rallied outside the local office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, pledging to file a complaint against their employer for religious discrimination.
The owner, Mike Knowles, says the decision is about safety, not religion or race. "The woman's skirt was caught in the boot washer and she potentially could have been seriously injured, and we're just not going to live with that," he said.
He also claims that the uniform code isn't immodest; the boots go high enough to cover all skin, and employees can always wear pants underneath their dresses.
The employees don't think the move was so innocuous, however. One woman claimed that her supervisor swore at her when she wouldn't change out of her burqa. "They don't like our color and they don't like our religion," she told the TV station.
The issue of Muslim dress, a long and fraught debate across the Atlantic, has recently rubbed up against employers in this country. Last month, AT&T was forced to pay a Kansas City woman $5 million, after she alleged years of hostile treatment, ever since she'd converted to Islam and began wearing a veil. She claimed that managers repeatedly told her to take it off, and one grabbed her and tried to rip it from her head.
Earlier this month, New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority paid out $184,500 to eight present and former employees for discriminating against them for their religious clothing. The MTA has now changed its policy, saying that Muslim and Sikh workers can wear head scarves and turbans, as long as they're in the company's color: solid, navy blue
It's illegal to fire or refuse to hire a worker for his or her religious dress under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as long as accommodating such clothing doesn't impose an undue hardship -- for example, an expense or safety risk. Two weeks ago, the California Assembly passed a bill that would tighten this provision, and demand that employers prove that accommodating religious dress would pose significant financial hardship, and clarifies that relegating religiously-dressed employees to the back room doesn't count as accommodation.
This debate comes on the heels of a sweeping national conversation about religious freedom in the workplace. This past weekend, "Stand Up for Religious Freedom" rallies sprang up around the country, as religious leaders and concerned citizens continue to campaign against the upcoming federal mandate that businesses include birth control coverage in their health-care plans. Despite very different causes, the female workers at Diane's Fine Desserts could well take up their rallying cries.
In Chicago, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz, chair of the legislative committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, called the law "an attack on any religious faith in this country."
The mandate "is about denying the rights of men and women to live and act according to their conscience," professor Mary Healy of Sacred Heart Major Seminary told the gathering in Detroit.
Rev. Mark Evans declared to the protesters in Little Rock, Ark.: "We've got to quit focusing on how our beliefs are different, but focus on the freedom that we have."
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