500 Words – When One Should Pray, and When One Should Work

Could you imagine a college professor looking at his watch, telling the class to take a ten minute break, then rolling out a mat and praying? What about a first responder who interrupts a rescue because of the time of day? How about a cashier, a barber, a car salesman, or perhaps a doctor? Preposterous questions? Not hardly.

A man named Jama Mohamed decided to take a break from his shift at a meat packing plant without permission to engage in a ten-minute prayer at sunset. When discovered, Mohamed was taken to his supervisor and fired.

After he left the production line and began praying, Mohamed said, supervisors took his prayer mat, pulled him up by his collar and sent him crying to a lead supervisor, who fired him.

“I told him, ‘Look, I know I am in America and I know in America there is a freedom of religion for everybody to practice their religion. . . . And as long as you fulfill that — as long as you let me pray — I will always work for you,'” Mohamed, 28, said last week through an interpreter.

“And he said, ‘No, that’s not acceptable — your prayers are not acceptable here. You’re here to work, not pray.'”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a complaint that alleges that Swift & Company violated the worker’s civil rights (as well as other workers) by not allowing the worker to leave the production line and pray.

Donald Selzer, whom is a Minneapolis-based attorney for Swift, said that due to the high number of employees that require prayers, an accommodation simply cannot be made that wouldn’t also hamper production significantly. Selzer went on to elaborate that no workers were fired for praying on the job; workers were fired for leaving their post without permission.

By law, an employer in the United States has to make a reasonable accommodation to a worker’s religious beliefs. In this particular case, Swift offered to transfer the workers to an earlier shift so that they could engage in evening prayer on their own time. However, many workers prefer the second shift.

I don’t want to sound like an uncaring and insensitive jerk, but I don’t think Swift did anything wrong here. A worker walked off the production line without permission and was fired. We have a bunch of Somali immigrants who expect companies to just adapt to their (and their God’s) will and allow them unreasonable accommodations in order to exercise beliefs.

A reasonable accommodation was made by allowing workers to take an earlier shift. A reasonable accommodation is not halting production or allowing half the workforce to take off at sunset for a forty-five minute window. Would a reasonable accommodation consist of shifting the break time for everyone during sunset? Sure, but what about all of the other workers who could care less?

If Swift fired Muslim employees for being Muslim and praying (with permission), then Swift is wrong. If Swift could have but didn’t reasonably accommodate Muslim workers, then Swift is wrong. In both cases, the CAIR complaint has merit. However, if Swift did offer to reasonably accommodate a person based on his/her religious views but the worker refused, then that is all that Swift can really do.

At the same time, I don’t want Muslim workers imposing their religious beliefs on the rest of us. In this country, US Law is a slippery slope based on a little nuance called precedent. If the CAIR complaint wins out, there will be nothing to stop others from using this case as a basis for their own complaints. It may be a slippery slope, but it’s anything but unrealistic.

That’s my 500 Words.

8 Comments

  1. It’s madness of the highest order! I’m thankful that I can work and pray at the same time, without having to make a ‘pharisaical’ spectacle!

  2. I had a Muslim colleague who used to do all his five prayers of the day at once. He said that Allah is very forgiving 🙂
    If you visit a Muslim country, you’ll see that even the guards would leave their guns unattended when prayer time comes. For many of them, I suppose it would be hard to break such a strong habit. However, I would not allow my employees to leave the post without permission. I would tell them that from the hiring interview.

  3. “Could you imagine a college professor looking at his watch, telling the class to take a ten minute break, then rolling out a mat and praying? How about a cashier, a barber, a car salesman, or perhaps a doctor?”

    Yup. Absolutely.

    It’s called THE LAW not just here in California, but also in the United States. Here in Ca., the right to be free from discrimination or harassment in the workplace because of one’s religion is guaranteed under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The federal law is Title VII.

    Employees are entitled to a reasonable accommodation of the terms, conditions and privileges of their employment in order for them to exercise their right to religious belief and practices. So, for instance, a Seventh-Day Adventist who worships beginning at sundown on Friday might be excused from work early that day to get home before the sun sets. A Christian might come to work on Sunday after his/her regularly scheduled morning worship service. Employees are given religious holy days, such as Yom Kippur, for example, off altogether.

    The legal standard is a de minimis cost to the employer so it is a fact-based inquiry. In this case, Swift will have to show that it would incur more than a de minimis cost to allow its Muslim workers to stop and pray.

    However, changing an employee’s shift might well constitute a reasonable accommodation. An employee is entitled to a reasonable, not the ideal, accommodation. And if that means they lose things like the preferable shift, shift differential pay, overtime, etc., that may be the consequence of being accommodated.

    An employee must request the accommodation. So he/she cannot just modify his/her own work schedule or assignment without notifying the employer of the need for accommodation. The employer and employee are legally required to engage in a good faith, timely interactive process to derive an appropriate accommodation. That’s a fancy term for a conversation, dialogue. They must communication and the obligation is mutual.

    Yes, I do know a great deal about this subject since I am a civil rights attorney. 😀

  4. JHS,

    Thanks for bringing in professional insight into this topic. From what I know of the topic, it seems the offer to change work schedules is accommodation enough and the employee should have received permission beforehand.

  5. What about someone who interrupts an emergency rescue to pray? Slippery slope argument isn’t it? Sort of like the argument of don’t allow gays to marry or the next thing you know brothers will marry sisters. If a doctor ducked out while I was speaking with him or her, personally that wouldn’t surprise me.

    What an unfortunate work environment. A little communication up front would have saved a job and the need to re-hire but it seems from the story the management won’t accommodate and by conscience the workers can only budge so much. The management and the workers are both walls wanting to keep their own constraints and make the other bow. As a result the production line bottlenecks.

    One was singled out as an example to intimidate the other 120 workers. This doesn’t have to be as volatile. While there may be evangelist among the faithful, they aren’t imposing a request for all workers and management to spend a few minutes with god themselves. Asking for accommodation

    A couple ten minute breaks over a workday are not exactly radically shocking, is it? It’s not a random time. Prayer schedules are readily available and can be shared with management as a predictable break time. True people generally take shifts to not leave a skeleton crew. Practice may have to adapt somewhat for all these people to work together.

    Obviously tensions are running high if someone grabs a person while they talk with god. That seems out of line to me but the sides are at risk of polarizing further until an adequate communicator intercedes so both sides can hear each other.

  6. I’m glad to see that the accommodation is moving ahead understanding. http://www.forbes.com/feeds/ap/2007/08/23/ap4050263.html
    Swift is one thing after another since a sweep for illegals came thru to take out hundreds.

  7. Pearl,

    Thanks for the link. I do have to disagree about the slippery slope. Slippery slope would be implying falsely that one thing would eventually lead to another. Having first responders take a prayer break from a prolonged rescue is indeed a valid possibility.

    I’m glad Swift is making the reasonable accommodations necessary. My only concern is it seems this accommodation will affect all employees, whether the person is of the Muslim faith or not. An example would be a Jewish employee who can’t eat pork and wants management to alter the menu for everyone. Why can’t Swift just accommodate just the employees to whom the issue concerns?

  8. Perhaps not a slippery slope. Looking at the worst case, why would a prayer break be necessary in an emergency? The Koran makes allowances for special cases. For example those who are ill, nursing or pregnant, don’t need to do fasting. Those who don’t have the financial means to get to Mecca don’t have a penalty against them for not being able to fulfill the pillar of Islam. If there is an emergency, I would imagine that the 5 daily prayers would be able to adjust. To adjust every day because of work is another matter.

    Apparently they can’t just make exceptions because the union says all people must be treated the same whether they want to or not. No one can get a longer break.

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