Wal-Mart, When Pushed, Agrees to Respect Muslim Worker’s Rights

By Guest Columnist Jul 23, 2009

By Miriam Leshin Freedom of religion for all? Not quite. Earlier this week, Wal-Mart rehired a Muslim employee in Minnesota, whom the store had initially fired for disobeying a ban on prayer during work breaks. The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations intervened on employee Abdi Abdi’s behalf, negotiating with local and national representatives of Wal-Mart to reach an agreement. The council says that Abdi’s right to prayer during breaks are protected both by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. While it is tempting to simply revel in Abdi’s victory over Wal-Mart, let’s first be clear about what exactly necessitated the negotiations in the first place. Abdi’s supervisor was first allowed to impose a ban on prayer during work breaks. And then Abdi was fired for violating this ban by trying to pray during his work breaks. Absurd. Interestingly, Abdi was fired from a Woodbury, MN Wal-Mart, and then rehired at a Wal-Mart in St. Paul, both because of its proximity to Abdi’s home and the local Muslim community. This is the most recent incident of religious-based discrimination in the workplace, an ever-increasing, all-American trend. Charges of religious discrimination filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have almost doubled in the last 10 years and anti-Muslim incidents reported to the council have increased by 18 percent from 2007 to 2008 alone. Just earlier this month a Muslim employee of a Chicago computer company filed a case for harassment and unfair termination of employment, that were both religiously and racially motivated. In 2008, a dispute at a chicken processor in Minneapolis—which was also over taking breaks for prayer—was settled in a federal district court. And these are just the cases in which the employee fought back for his/her rights—imagine how many incidents happen but are not fought because of a lack of resources on the part of the employee or intimidation on the part of the employer. Unlike the Chicago and Minneapolis cases, this most recent incident at Wal-Mart never went to court—instead, the council and store representatives worked it out through negotiation. This is clearly a step in the right direction, as it promotes mutual understanding and respect between the council and the employer. Other efforts are being made as well—mostly on paper. How much of a difference will the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s new Compliance Manual Section on religious discrimination or CAIR’s diversity training classes—which 10 Wal-Mart employees in St. Paul now have to undergo—actually make? That Abdi got his job back and will now be able to pray at work is a clear victory. But the fact that intolerance in our society necessitate court cases or negotiations or the council’s mere existence begs an important question: Are all Americans really allowed to express their religions freely? Or just white Christians? In order to move forward, we first need to recognize that while our country purports to treat its people equally, it does not actually do so in reality.