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American-Islamic Group Hoping for Compromise at Ariens Company Regarding Prayer Breaks

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Muslim men pray in the mosque.

A Wisconsin manufacturer insists it's being reasonable with its Muslim employees. Starting this month, Ariens Company in Brillion has begun requiring its Muslim workers to pray during pre-assigned breaks, not when their faith requires prayer. The company says otherwise, the production line is disrupted. Dozens of those workers have left, but the group lobbying on their behalf is urging them to return, while it seeks negotiations.

Ibrahim Hooper is spokesman for CAIR - the Council for American-Islamic Relations. He has a theory about this case - and another recently, at a Cargill factory in Colorado.

"In some cases, these workers have been praying on the job for up to 10 years, for instance, at the Cargill plant in Colorado, and it does point in the direction of something other than the efficiencies of the manufacturing process being at stake.

"Somehow, something has changed within the last few weeks, and I think what has changed is that companies are recognizing that there is growing anti-Muslim sentiment based on Donald Trump's and Ben Carson's anti-Muslim rhetoric or the San Bernardino shootings or the Paris attacks. We have seen an unprecedented rise in anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Muslim hate crimes since the Paris attacks. So we’re thinking these things are going together; they are not separate issues," Hooper says.

What is required of practicing Muslims?

"We’re required to prayer five times daily, and usually at issue in these kinds of situations is what’s called the Maghrib or sunset prayer, because that particular prayer has a fairly narrow window of opportunity for being offered," Hooper says.

The CAIR Minnesota office says the workers traveled there to relay their concerns, reporting that the company had called them into a meeting room on January 14 and advised them of the new policy. 

According to Hooper, CAIR, in its 21 year-existence, has addressed a number of these kinds of cases involving manufacturing plants, Somali-American workers and a denial of prayer accommodations based on the argument that they harm the efficiency of the production line. Yet Hooper says the group has always been able to resolve the situation to the satisfaction of both parties.

"It’s usually quite simple. People are allow, for instance, to go to the bathroom during shifts. And it really doesn’t take any more time to go and offer a quick prayer than it would to go for a restroom break. So obviously the production lines are not being shut down, the manufacturing efficiency is not suffering," Hooper says.

Hooper says Americans have the right to reasonable religious accommodations in the workplace, as long as they don't cause an undue hardship for the employer, and he insists neither standard is black and white, so most instances must be resolved on case-by-case bases.

Yet Hooper says CAIR is in contact with the EEOC, the NLRB and legal counsel.

"We wish we wouldn't have to to to those lengths," Hooper says.

In general, Hooper says CAIR has been hearing about increased cases of Muslims being harassed.

"When we post an article about these kinds of cases on our Facebook, for instance, we’ll get hundreds of anti-Muslim comments of the type - if you don’t like it here, go back where you came from," Hooper says.

Ariens Company has not yet responded to WUWM's request to share the employer's perspective, but in a posted letter, CEO Dan Ariens stated, in part:

"Like any accommodation, we put a considerable amount of time into finding a solution that would work for both the employees and the company. Our staff is committed to providing a great place to work for all employees and have met with members of our Somalian employee group to better understand their needs. We consulted with local representatives who are of Muslim faith to help provide sustainable solutions.

"We want to be clear that no one was terminated here. We are asking employees to use two scheduled breaks for religious observation, and are offering designated prayer rooms. Additionally, we are also offering to look for positions on other shifts that might better accommodate prayer obligations.

"This change affected 53 employees. More than ten of the employees have contacted Ariens Company to say they will return to work under the new policy. And we welcome their return. We continue to be open to any of the employees returning to work under the new policy and I have sent a letter to each of them re-stating that offer.

"Let me be clear: we respect their faith, we respect the work they have done at Ariens, and we respect their decision regardless of their choice to return to work or not."

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