Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Do you know? Discrimination against Muslims

We are now nine years post-9/11. To say that relations between Americans and Muslim-Americans are poor is an understatement. Our country has been worked into a froth over a proposed Mosque at Ground Zero. It seems that Muslims rank first in the category, “People against whom discrimination and marginalization is culturally acceptable.” Employment discrimination claims brought by Muslims have hit record numbers—higher in 2009 than even in 2002.

Discrimination against Muslims comes in two forms: national origin discrimination and religious discrimination. Both types are not that much different than a race discrimination claim. Failures to hire or promote, terminations, other unlawful employment actions, or harassment because of on one’s national origin or religion all constitute unlawful discrimination. For example, take the recent pair of cases filed by the EEOC against meatpacker JBS Swift, in which Muslim employees alleged that  blood and bones were hurled at them, bathroom walls were covered with vile graffiti and company supervisors fired many Islamic employees.

Religious discrimination, however, presents its own unique set of issues, because employers have an affirmative obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Two recent stories illustrate the problems that these claims present for employers. Muslim employees continue to sue retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, challenging its “Look Policy” that prevents those who wear hijabs (religious head scarves) from being hired. Then, there is the Disneyland case, in which a Muslim employee, working as a hostess at a restaurant, protesting the theme park’s insistence that her costume cover her hijab so that she meets the “The Disney Look”—a 17-page document [pdf] outlining dress and grooming guidelines for all Cast Members to maintain uniformity and the suspension of disbelief, which has been used since Disneyland opened in 1955.

We all know that discrimination of all kinds is wrong. But, Muslim-Americans are practicing politics of exclusion in a time that calls for the opposite so that we, as a nation, can heal. The issue isn’t one of rights. Of course, one has a right to build a Mosque where one wants (and the law cannot stop the Ground Zero Mosque from being built). One should have the right to pray at work (as long as it doesn’t interfere with job performance or otherwise disrupt the workplace). One should have the right to wear religious garments in the workplace (although Abercrombie and Disney have the right to protect and project the public image that forms the foundation of their companies). Yet, as long as people insist on building a Mosque at Ground Zero, others will feel it’s okay to hurl meat and epithets.

There are no easy answers to these ugly problems. But, it’s not enough simply to say that employers have to cease discrimination. For the healing to begin, and for the discrimination to stop, there also has to be a showing of willingness, participation, and inclusion from the other side of the argument.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.