At what point is an employee’s religious liberty violated when an employer enforces policies that ensure productivity and fair treatment of the entire staff? Should a company be held accountable to allow for any and all religious practices — regardless of the effect those practices have on the company and its bottom line?
On Wednesday, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled against the private company Cargill Meat Solutions in a discrimination case. Interestingly, the EEOC also found that the employee union Teamsters Local No. 455 did not represent employees’ religious liberties because it “historically [failed] to pursue grievances on their behalf relating to religious accommodation and by failing to intercede, advocate for, or represent” the workers.
Fort Morgan, Colorado, is home to a Cargill slaughterhouse; the pay starts at $14 per hour. A job here provides the opportunity to pursue a livelihood in America without the need to learn to speak English. Somali refugees, in particular, found employment at Cargill to be beneficial because the job allowed breaks so that the Muslim employees could pray multiple times daily. (It is a common practice to pray five times per day in the Islamic religion.)
However, in December 2015, 150 Somali Muslims walked out of their slaughterhouse jobs to protest what they claim was religious discrimination. The refugee workers said their prayer times were threatened and they were harassed for their religious practices.
After three days of failing to come to work, all 150 employees were fired for job abandonment.
In a letter from the EEOC to Cargill, the commission said it had determined the Muslim employees had been exposed "to a hostile work environment based on their religion, race and national origin, including making disparaging racial, ethnic and religious comments and by requiring them to choose between their religion and work."
The company has denied the claim; it says there was no change to prayer breaks and that the situation is nothing more than a misunderstanding. In a statement responding to the EEOC ruling, the company said, "We are disappointed by, and disagree with, how the EEOC interprets what occurred at Fort Morgan in 2015. The inflammatory allegations made by CAIR [on Wednesday] are false." (CAIR is the Council on American–Islamic Relations.)
"Cargill has provided religious accommodation to Fort Morgan employees for many years and established designated reflection areas there in 2009. Our policy has not changed and, based upon the facts, we are confident in our position. Cargill employees at Fort Morgan come from many countries, and everyone working at the plant has access to religious accommodation under our policy," the company continued.
But at the end of the day, Cargill is accountable for its production. Its business is to slaughter animals and prepare meat for sale in an assembly-line fashion. And an assembly line must run with employees at work in each position at every shift.
Cargill said it set aside two cubicles for prayer in an effort to honor its employees' religious needs and that it attempted to honor those prayer breaks. But Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said in 2016, "Occasionally, there are times when staffing limitation does not allow granting of prayer requests. There has been no change to our religious accommodation policy. The granting of prayer requests has always been based on adequate staffing."
Here is the reality: In order to remain a viable business that turns a profit (so it can pay its staff accordingly), work must be completed. The balance between religious and work commitments proves once again to be delicate and left open to interpretation on both sides.
Katie Nations, married for 15 years, is a working mother of three young children. She lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.