Muslim Employees File Religious Discrimination Complaint Against Wisconsin Firm Over Prayer Dispute

The religious discrimination complaint could lead to a federal lawsuit.

An Islamic advocacy group representing former Muslim employees at a Wisconsin equipment company filed a discrimination complaint against the firm Tuesday because employees can no longer take prayer breaks at times that are in accordance with their religion. A letter accompanying the complaint claims employees were discriminated and retaliated against on the basis of their religion, national origin and race.

According to the letter, Ariens Co., which manufactures snowblowers and lawn tractors in Brillion, Wisconsin, used to allow Muslim employees to take prayer breaks one at a time after notifying and receiving permission from a supervisor. Employees say they had been able to take those breaks at the traditional times for Muslims. However, the employees claim the company began enforcing a new policy beginning on Jan. 25 that permitted only two pre-determined 10-minute breaks per work shift with no additional accommodations for prayer outside of those break times. Dozens of Somali Muslim employees at the company have protested the new break policy, and 15 of them are now represented by attorneys at the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, which submitted the charges of discrimination with the Milwaukee office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Dozens of Somali Muslim employees at the company have protested the new break policy, and 15 of them are now represented by attorneys at the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, which submitted the charges of discrimination with the Milwaukee office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“These individuals had direct and personal conversations with management in which they stated that they wanted to continue their employment with Ariens, but felt that they were no longer welcome and being forced out because of the company’s new policy,” CAIR wrote in a letter that accompanied its religious discrimination complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on religion and requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs. In keeping with their Islamic faith, practicing Muslims pray five times each day. But Ariens management allegedly threatened to fire those employees who continued to pray beyond the scheduled breaks or who had requested an accommodation to pray. Seven Muslim employees were let go earlier this year, while 14 others resigned over the dispute.

“The outright refusal to entertain, discuss, or offer any reasonable religious accommodation options that would resolve the alleged workplace conflict is unacceptable and inconsistent with prevailing Title VII law and EEOC guidelines,” CAIR said in the letter.

Maha Sayed, an attorney for the Washington, D.C., based organization, said it could take several months for federal officials to investigate the employees’ claims. The EEOC could also offer to mediate the dispute during the investigation, or the two parties could voluntarily settle it the claim.

“If the EEOC concludes that there is reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred, it may decide to litigate the case itself in federal court or issue the charging party a Notice of Right to Sue letter, which allows the party to file a federal lawsuit within 90 days,” Sayed told ABC News in an email Wednesday.

Ariens Co. spokesperson Ann Stilp said the complaint was “disappointing news.”

“We have had Muslim employees working for the company for nine years. We currently have more than 27 Muslim employees who continue to work here and we continue to accommodate them with prayer rooms,” Stilp told ABC News in a statement.