There is an interesting controversy in England over a policy of U.K. retailer Marks and Spencer, which has allowed Muslim employees to refuse to help customers buying dishes with pork or alcohol. The result was long lines of shoppers who were told to wait for a non-Muslim employee to check them out. With huge numbers of people buying champagne for the holiday, customers are irate as they stood around for another cashier without religious objections to appear. There is now a Facebook page to boycott the store over the policy. However, the Obama Administration is supporting a similar claim in a U.S. case.
On Monday, the company apologized for the incident. However, the company did not say it would change its policy but rather said “[r]equests are considered on a case by case basis and may lead to an individual working in a department where conflicts wouldn’t arise, such as in clothing or bakery in foods.” In the meantime, Muslim groups have supported the policy and encouraged more stores to adopt it. Salman Farsi, media officer of the East London Mosque Trust “[w]e respect Marks & Spencer as a retailer that allows its employees to observe their religious values.” Farsi said.
We have faced the same conflicts in the United States, including a few that have gone to court. One repeated conflict is the demand by Muslim taxi drivers that they have a right to refuse to carry passengers carrying alcohol like wine from a store or dogs (which some Muslim view as “unclean” animals).
There is a recent case brought by the Obama Administration that could result in greater attention to this issue. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued a trucking company, Star Transport, Inc., in Morton, Ill., for not accommodating the refusal of Muslim truck drivers to deliver any product containing alcohol. EEOC District Director John P. Rowe announced that “Our investigation revealed that Star could have readily avoided assigning these employees to alcohol delivery without any undue hardship, but chose to force the issue despite the employees’ Islamic religion.” John Hendrickson, the EEOC Regional Attorney for the Chicago District Office added “Everyone has a right to observe his or her religious beliefs, and employers don’t get to pick and choose which religions and which religious practices they will accommodate. If an employer can reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice without an undue hardship, then it must do so.”
While I am highly supportive of free exercise rights, I fail to see why this is not a bona fide occupational qualification for employees. If you are a cashier or a taxi driver, those positions require the interaction of people of different cultures and values. It depends how you define hardship. It seems to be that trying to track and accommodate the various religious views and preferences of employees is a hardship. It would also require companies to inquire as to the religion of drivers to be sure that it has enough non-Muslim drivers to make deliveries. That itself could be viewed as discrimination. Moreover, the company may have short notice of deliveries or the content of shipping. Moreover, drivers may want to confirm the contents of shipments, causing delay. It seems reasonable to expect people with such religious views to find employment that will not cause such conflicts.
What do you think?