A group of around 80 Somali Muslim meat packing workers in Nebraska were fired in 2008 when they staged a walkout after negotiations over prayer time breaks broke down. In 2010, a suit was later filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the JBS Swift meatpacking plant alleging religious discrimination.
According to The Grand Island Independent, Union representatives and senior management of the plant attempted to negotiate a settlement in which Muslim employees would be able to take prayer breaks while working at the plant. Options floated included changing meal times so they would align with prayer times.
The factory turned down the request believing it violated a pre-existing agreement about mealtimes which the company had with the union.
A group of employees then staged a walk-out, leading to the factory granting a mass prayer break at sunset.
However, a group of Hispanic non-Muslim employees then staged a walk-out, enraged that the Muslim employees had been granted what they perceived as preferential treatment. In order to stop that strike, the company reneged on its previous agreement with the Muslims.
It was at this point the company warned its employees that the next group of people to strike would be fired.
The next evening, a group of Somali Muslims staged a demonstration in the cafeteria followed by a workout, having been riled by senior management’s perfidy in forsaking its pledge to allow Muslim employees a mass break.
As a result, close to 80 Somali Muslim employees were terminated.
Now, eight years later, a Judge in Omaha has ruled that the termination was not motivated by discrimination.
This case is illustrative in a number of key ways:
Firstly, it shows that the U.S. takes religious discrimination seriously, and companies that do not make efforts to grant reasonable religious requests face legal action.
Secondly, it shows that not every religious request can be worked out. In this case, the judge ruled against the Muslim employees. Although we do not know the details of the case or the specifics of the union agreements, we can see that it’s not always going to work out in favor of the religious person.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it shows that what one person might see as a reasonable religious request, another might see as unfair preferential treatment.
As America becomes increasingly diverse, these issues will continue to arise. Delicacy and a keen awareness of the laws surrounding religious discrimination are and will continue to be essential skills for employers.