As usual, over at the Daily Beast Dean Obeidallah has his dress over his head, this time about Cargill Meat Solutions in Fort Morgan, Colo., which last week terminated about 190 Somali Muslim workers. Here are the facts according to Obeidallah:
Jaylani Hussein, a spokesman for and an executive director of the Council of American Islamic Relations Minnesota chapter, explained to me that Cargill had for years allowed the Muslim employees to take prayer breaks at this location with relatively no issues. And keep in mind the Muslim employees would work on the Christian holidays so that the Christian employees could practice their faith.
But a few weeks ago a dispute arose when a supervisor apparently told workers they could no longer pick their own break time to pray, but instead would need the permission of a supervisor to go pray. When some of the Muslim employees pressed the supervisor about when he would release them to pray, they were reportedly told by the supervisor: “If you want to pray, go home.”
That sparked a walk out by some Muslim employees. Thereafter hundreds of them remained home in protest of what they viewed as Cargill revoking their religious accommodation to pray. Cargill then fired 190 Muslim employees who refused to return to work until they were provided assurances that they could take prayer breaks.
Unsurprisingly, that’s a very different story than was related over the weekend by CNN:
Last month, a group of 11 workers at Cargill Meat Solutions in Fort Morgan wanted to go pray at the same time in a room in the plant that is set aside for prayer and reflection. Their supervisor asked that the group break up into smaller numbers to not affect production, according to CNN affiliate KCNC.
The workers complied with the supervisor’s request and went in smaller groups to pray. But after their shift ended, 10 of the 11 workers resigned, turning in their badges and hard hats, Cargill spokesman Michael Martin told CNN.
News of the dispute spread to other plant employees, and about 150 Somali workers missed work for three days in protest.
Based on Cargill’s attendance policy, the company fired those who failed to come to work for three consecutive days without giving any form of notice, Martin said.
So, in fact, contra Obeidallah, the vast majority of the 190 employees in question were not fired for wanting to pray; they were fired for not showing up for work for three days, in express violation of the terms of their employment. (According to the Denver Post, another 20 walked out in the middle of a shift.)
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers must “reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business” (emphasis mine). There are 2,000 employees at the Cargill plant in Fort Morgan, more than a quarter of which were Muslim prior to the firings (more than 400 Muslims continue to work at the plant). It seems entirely reasonable that, in the words of Cargill spokesman Michael Martin, “There are times where we have to sequence how many people are allowed to go [to pray] so that production is not slowed down.” And doing so would not be out of keeping with the law.
The only matter of dispute seems to be what the initial group of eleven workers was told by their supervisor, and whether his instructions violated the workers’ rights. In light of the company’s statement — “At no time did Cargill prevent employees from prayer at Fort Morgan nor have we changed policies related to religious accommodation and attendance.” — and the fact that the employees accommodated his request to pray in smaller groups, evidence for the claim is, to put it lightly, sparse. Additionally, Cargill has, as even Obeidallah admits, a good record of respecting Muslim employees’ religious practices; Cargill obviously could not keep 600 Muslims in its employ if it habitually violated their rights; and the only source for the offending quote (“If you want to pray, go home.”) is a representative for CAIR, an organization whose relationship with the facts in these sorts of cases is often, shall we say, flexible.
In reality, it seems far more likely that Obeidallah and others have largely fabulized this tale of victimization because they are invested in a particular story of religious practice in America, namely, one in which Republicans have systematically vilified every religion except Mike Huckabee-approved Christianity and are determined to squeeze out of acceptable society any citizen who isn’t wash’d in the blood. To that point, Obeidallah: “If 190 Christians were fired en masse from their jobs for wanting to pray for a few minutes,” he writes, “there would be outrage! Franklin Graham would be screaming from the rooftops. Fox News would break into its coverage of Christian victimization to do a special report on it. And, of course, GOP presidential candidates like Ted Cruz would be calling this a ‘jihad’ on Christians.”
In fact, if the employees in this case were Christians, we would likely have heard not a peep about it. Liberals, if they noted it at all, would be scolding Christians for expecting Cargill to overhaul its production schedule to accommodate their overzealous Bible-thumpery. Such is the way of double-standards.
There are genuine tensions between religious practice and participation in the various spheres of public life, and devout Muslim employees present new challenges that employers will have to negotiate — on the same terms that they would Christian or Jewish employees. But there is no evidence of a genuine conflict here — only evidence of shameless agenda-pushing.