Silence of “Religious Liberty” Activists on Muslims’ Cases Not What You Think

Ebeneezer Scrooge, from Disney's A Christmas Carol (2009).

The silence on the part of religious liberty advocates in a pair of recent cases involving Muslim employees would appear to be a simple case of prioritizing the religious beliefs of Christians over those of minority workers. But the explanation may be both more and less cynical.

On Monday, the New York Times reported on an ongoing labor dispute between around 200 Muslim workers and their employer, Cargill Meat Solutions, a meat processing plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado. Until recently, employees had been allowed—with prior permission from a supervisor—to take one or two short breaks per shift to pray, as required by their faith. While the employer claims this policy has not changed, in early December a group of workers was not permitted to pray when they chose to, then told by a supervisor “If you don’t want to work here, go home.” In response, many Muslim workers walked out. After three days they were fired, and have filed discrimination complaints claiming a violation of Title VII’s mandate that employees’ religious practices be reasonably accommodated.

A similar dispute occurred this winter in Wisconsin, where dozens of Muslim employees left the Ariens Company after being told they could pray only during pre-assigned break periods. Many observant Muslims pray five times a day, typically at set times. Both companies have argued that offering prayer breaks is not always practicable, but employees say they were previously accommodated, and that the prayers take no more time than a bathroom break.

The scope of what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” under Title VII is tricky and fact-specific, so it’s not clear that the workers have a slam-dunk religious discrimination case. But more interesting than the strength of the legal claims has been the notable absence of outrage from conservatives, who have in recent years proclaimed themselves the defenders of religious freedom.

In a wide range of coverage of the stories since December, I found no quotes from any of the typical pro-accommodation sources—conservative politicians, lawyers, commentators and activists. Nor could I find any public reference to the dispute by a single municipal, state, or federal elected official, or from any non-Muslim religious rights organization. Conservative-leaning news sources that covered the stories minimized the employees’ concerns: one reported that the Wisconsin workers were fired for “violating a company break policy that doesn’t provide extra time for prayer,” while another called the Colorado incident “a Fake Tale of Anti-Muslim Discrimination.” Extremist website, typically a strong supporter of religious exemptions, called the workers’ actions “stealth jihad.”

The lack of response from the religious right on this issue isn’t terribly shocking, but it’s helpful to piece apart two of the likely motivating factors. First, and most obviously, is the element of Islamophobia that this election cycle has made disturbingly clear.

But the other reason, keeping in mind that both Cargill and Ariens are privately owned companies, appears to be the fact that the requested accommodation would benefit workers, potentially at their employer’s expense, rather than the reverse. In Hobby Lobby and similar cases, employers have used religious exemptions as a way to resist progressive government regulation intended to provide a benefit to workers. In contrast, the Muslim workers in these cases are demanding enforcement of a workers’ rights protection—specifically the Civil Rights Act, a law that some conservatives and libertarians resist to this day.

While employees say that the accommodation would not impose a meaningful burden on employers, the companies have implied that allowing prayer breaks could cause delays on rapid-fire production lines. It’s an interesting contrast that while the religious right sees no problem in shifting the cost of contraceptive health care from employers to employees or the government in order to accommodate the religious beliefs of a  company’s owners, they seem unwilling to allow workers to shift even the minimal costs associated with five-minute prayer breaks to their employers.

Truthfully, while the fact that those requesting the accommodation are Muslim may be more salient, the fact that they are factory workers could be the bigger motivator for the absence of conservative support. The prominent, conservative religious rights law firm The Becket Fund has litigated a small handful of religious accommodations cases involving Muslim plaintiffs, including claimants who sought the right to wear a beard at a government job or in prison, to build a mosque, or to pray in school. None of these cases, however, sought to secure workers’ rights in the private sector, or would have imposed any financial cost on employers.

There are plenty of arguments for why courts should exercise caution in granting any religious accommodation in the workplace, and should carefully consider the effects an accommodation will have on employers, employees, consumers and the public. It should raise suspicion, however, when those who most adamantly demand the right for business-owners to enforce their beliefs on workers seem unwilling to speak up for the religious rights of minority workers.