Religious Freedom Laws Don't Guarantee The Right To Disrupt Production Lines


Cargill and Ariens, two American companies that process meat and build lawn-movers, respectively, have bent over backwards to accommodate their Muslim employees.

Both companies offer dedicated prayer rooms, with Cargill taking things a step further, accommodating Islamic beliefs by partitioning off separate areas for men and women to pray.

Both companies have embraced Muslims from the Somali and Yemeni immigrant populations, providing them with well-paying jobs and opportunity. Both companies consult with Islamic groups and community leaders before making decisions that impact employees.

And both companies allow their workers to take prayer breaks, honoring the spirit of U.S. religious freedom laws.

So why are Ariens and Cargill being vilified and accused of religious discrimination?

Religious freedom is important to Americans -- this country was founded by colonists escaping religious persecution, and despite a never-ending succession of terrorist attacks claiming headlines, a recent Associated Press poll shows a majority of Americans still swear by the religious rights of their Muslim neighbors.

But to hear their critics tell it, Ariens and Cargill are heartless employers who have been willing to callously fire Muslim employees over their religious obligation to pray five times a day, a practice Islam calls salah.

Ariens made headlines after telling its 53 Muslim employees on Jan. 14 that they will have to pray during meal breaks. Cargill has been eviscerated in the press for limiting the number of employees who can take prayer breaks at the same time. Both companies have been chided by misguided editorial writers.

Ariens and Cargill are following the letter of the law when it comes to religious freedom, and have made good-faith efforts to accommodate their employees and the beliefs those employees hold. They're balancing the religious practices of their workers with the needs of the company.

But there's one thing they can't do: Stop the production line.

The language of the law is clear, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

"An employer does not have to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices if doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer. An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work."

Stopping production lines, especially routinely, would be ruinous to companies that operate on slim margins and depend on efficiencies to keep the lights on. Production line efficiency is so vital to healthy companies that maintenance is often planned months in advance, to minimize costly downtime.

Interrupting production lines can cost companies millions, and it's not just the religious freedoms of a few dozen workers at stake: If a factory is shuttered or a company folds, that impacts the lives of thousands of other employees, their families and dependents, and the economies of the towns and cities where those factories operate.

"There has been a desire among some employees to go in larger groups of people to pray," said Michael Martin, a spokesman for Cargill. "We just can't accommodate that. It backs up the flow of all the production. We're a federally inspected, [U.S. Department of Agriculture]-inspected plant. We have to ensure food safety. We have to ensure the products we produce meet consumer expectations."

The question of balancing religious freedom versus hardship to employers is not going away any time soon: Companies like Hertz and Whole Foods have been on the receiving end of lawsuits over prayer times.

Even "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, serving 20 years for fighting against Americans in Afghanistan, has a pending lawsuit against prison officials. Those prison guards and wardens, Lindh inexplicably argues, are infringing on his religious rights because they won't allow him to pray in large groups with other inmates.

This is an issue that needs to be resolved, and it's up to American courts to assert that reasonable religious accommodation shouldn't come at the expense of destroying American companies.

Sources: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, The Denver Post, Daily Mail / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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