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Business Costs & Regulation

Discrimination Claims Against Muslims Rising

To avoid costly lawsuits, employers should adopt a zero tolerance policy.

Claims of workplace discrimination against Muslims are escalating in the wake of the controversies over plans to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York City and over the pastor in Florida who threatened to burn copies of the Quran in protest. Even before recent events, the number of charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was on the upswing, from 504 in FY 2004 to 803 in FY 2009, according to the EEOC. Now they’re going even higher.

Unfair dismissal and harassment are the most common allegations, although denial of a place to pray or the right to dress according to religious rules is also on the upswing. The EEOC recently filed a suit against Imperial Security of Philadelphia, charging that a Muslim security guard was fired for wearing a head scarf. The EEOC also alleges that other workers were threatened with termination if they didn’t remove their scarves. In another suit, the EEOC sued retailer Abercrombie & Fitch for refusing to hire a young Muslim woman because she wore a head scarf, which was “not the Abercrombie look.”

Employers must have solid reasons for denying requests -- safety, excessive costs, loss of efficiency or infringement on the rights of other workers. The law requires that employers reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices. Examples of some common religious accommodations include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments and modifications to workplace policies or practices.

Firms also need to have a zero tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind. Through education and training, employers must make sure their workforce knows that harassment and discrimination based on religion or national origin will not be tolerated. Also, there needs to be a credible way to register complaints. A policy that says an employee must first bring all complaints to his or her supervisor is of little use if the supervisor is the one making the discriminatory comments.