The donuts in the details

frying_doughnutsThe Chicago Tribune's coverage of what appears to be a minor news story about a contract dispute between a national franchise (Dunkin' Donuts) and a local franchisee deserves a mention of praise for its accuracy and relative depth on the tricky religious and legal angles. For starters, the reporter portrays the article's primary subject precisely and in a way that conveys the information readers need to know:

An Arab-American owner of a Chicago-area Dunkin' Donuts store has to give up his franchise after he lost his long-running legal battle with the restaurant chain over his religious objections to selling pork products.

A lawyer for Walid Elkhatib said Tuesday that his client is in the process of removing Dunkin' Donuts signs from his Westchester outlet, but apparently not fast enough for the company.

Combined with the article's lede, the headline use of the term "Muslim owner," works well with the description of Elkhatib because there are Arabs who are not Muslim and Muslims who are not Arab. And people who are not Muslim and people who are not Arab object to the consumption of pork products as we shall see later on in the article.

The article accurately reports the legal angle regarding the difference between an employee and a franchisee, but also gets into the precise nature of Elkhatib's dispute with Dunkin' Donuts and the religious issues that are at the heart of it all:

The company's lawsuit came two weeks after a federal jury found that the chain did not discriminate against Elkhatib for refusing to renew his franchise agreement because he declined to sell breakfast sandwiches with bacon, ham or sausage.

The dietary restrictions of Elkhatib's Muslim faith forbid him from eating or handling pork. When he decided to go into the restaurant business, his faith was one of the reasons why he invested in Dunkin' Donuts in 1979. The chain did not introduce breakfast sandwiches until 1984.

The religious issues are more of the sidebar in this case, which is probably OK because the restriction is not all that complicated. The article does note Elkhatib's claim was rejected earlier in the process because the judge determined that it was a religious discrimination claim, rather than a racial discrimination claim. For these reasons it's important for journalists to be precise in their use of language: whether or not Elkhatib's objection were based on his faith or his race could determine whether or not his lawsuit was successful and journalists should never take sides in news articles.

While brevity is important these days, it would be good to know exactly why that was significant to the trial court in rejecting the claim. It may not seem that significant, because two years later, an appeals court reversed the decision and set the case for trial because of inconsistencies in the doughnut chain's practices on this issue of pork-filled breakfast sandwiches (which Elkhatib lost on March 13, 2009), but it'd be good to inform readers of the reasoning. The inconsistent practices were the fact that Elkhatib's lawyers found another Chicago-area franchise permitted by the chain to refuse to sell the sandwiches because of the store's Jewish customer base.

The only other aspect missing from the article is a bit of the history and theology behind the beliefs against consuming products with pork. Do all Arab Muslims object to handling products with pork, or are there some that believe the restriction just relates to their own personal consumption? I also wonder whether this is becoming a more significant issue nationwide from a legal perspective. Determining that would require some legal research as opposed to religious research, but that would be an interesting perspective to have.

Image of doughnuts being deep fried used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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