Separation of mosque and cab

muslimcabYou don't have to read GetReligion long to realize that the writers here appreciate the work of Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times. We verge on being fans. So with that in mind, please consider my following comments about her new piece that ran with the headline "Faith and work collide in Minneapolis -- Somalian immigrants create a stir by declaring certain jobs offensive to Islam."

The story focuses on the fact that many Muslim cab divers are refusing to serve customers who are carrying alcohol in visible containers or who have the smell of alcohol on their clothing or breath. This raises legal questions about religion and discrimination in the workplace. This leads us to the following summary material:

Federal law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs -- so long as that doesn't place an "undue burden" on the business. Defining undue burden, however, can be tricky. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handled 2,541 complaints of faith-based discrimination last year, up nearly 50% from a decade earlier.

Last fall, the Minneapolis transit authority cited the reasonable accommodations law in promising not to assign a driver to buses that carried ads for a local gay and lesbian magazine called Lavender. The driver had objected to the ads -- which carry the slogan "Unleash Your Inner Gay" -- on religious grounds.

The law has also been used to aid Muslim employees. Managers often allow Muslim workers to schedule their breaks to coincide with the five-times-a-day prayer. Target last week reassigned its Muslim cashiers to jobs that don't require handling pork, such as stocking shelves. Other chains have also made such accommodations.

But the taxi driver dispute has resisted easy solutions. About 70% of the more than 900 drivers licensed to work at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are Somalian immigrants, spokesman Patrick Hogan said. In the last five years, 4,854 passengers have been denied service because they carried alcohol.

Now that is a big story, and Simon tells it with her usual array of interesting voices and telling details.

However, I was struck by that reference to a 50 percent rise in faith-based discrimination complaints in a decade. That raised some questions. I wanted, for example, to know more about the rights of employers, as well as employees. To some degree, relationships in a workplace are a "voluntary association" and employers have rights too.

Also, this cab case called to mind the recent struggles of Catholic doctors to practice their faith in the office, as well as at church. And what about those cases involving conservative Christian pharmacists? Finally, I work in a global network of Christian colleges and universities, and there are those who doubt whether these institutions should be allowed to consider doctrinal and moral questions when hiring (and firing).

So when I finished Simon's story, I immediately wanted to know where some of America's religious liberty groups -- on the left as well as the right -- stand on the cab dispute in Minneapolis. I mean, religious liberty is often a messy business. But it beats all the alternatives.

I hope Simon's editors let her dig into this story again and aqain.

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