Minneapolis-St. Paul has seen more than its share of conflict over Islam in the workplace. Muslim taxi drivers were recently involved in a protracted row after refusing to serve passengers with alcohol or seeing-eye dogs. Last year it was reported that a local Target has exempted employees from handling haram pork products. And in 2005, the Celestica electronics firm terminated or suspended numerous Muslim workers for violating rules that govern prayer times.
Fittingly, a Twin Cities-area food plant is the latest battleground over Islamic dress:
A group of Muslim workers allege they were fired by a New Brighton tortilla factory for refusing to wear uniforms that they say were immodest by Islamic standards.
Six Somali women claim they were ordered by a manager to wear pants and shirts to work instead of their traditional Islamic clothing of loose-fitting skirts and scarves, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil liberties group that is representing the women.
The women have filed a religious discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"For these women, wearing tight-fitting pants is like being naked," said Valerie Shirley, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota chapter of CAIR. "It's simply not an option."
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act addresses religion at work: "Employers must reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer." But "an employer can show undue hardship if accommodating an employee's religious practices … impairs workplace safety."
Indeed, Mission Foods claims that safety concerns have driven the newly strict dress code enforcement under which the women were relieved of their duties — not actually fired. CAIR-MN questions this rationale, contending that loose attire is irrelevant since the employees do not operate machinery. Neither side's argument appears entirely implausible, though the equation of wearing pants with "being naked" does push the envelope.
Will hardening positions leave the feds to settle the controversy? If so, the case could help resolve an age-old workplace question: just how uniformly should uniform guidelines be applied?