Can this US company ban Muslim prayer breaks? They just did.

A Wisconsin manufacturing plant is telling Muslim employees they can't leave the assembly line to pray. While the company claims "undue hardship" from prayer breaks, Muslim employees and advocates say there was never a problem.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
In this Dec. 4, 2015 file photo, Aiden Abdelaziz, 2, attends prayers with his father, Mohamed Abdelaziz, 22, originally from Cairo, Egypt, at Dar al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Va.

Muslim employees can only leave work to pray during meal breaks, according to a new policy imposed at Ariens Manufacturing in Brillion, Wisc.

“It is absolutely discrimination on its face,” employee Adan Hurr told WBAY News. “Allow me to pray so that I can go back to work and do what I love to do, which is working for Ariens. But we are not allowed to do that.” 

Islamic faith requires Muslims to pray five times a day. Until the new policy was announced Thursday, Muslim employees at Ariens were permitted to leave their station at the production line to pray twice during their shifts. While practicing the five-minute prayer, the Muslim employees would allocate their duties amongst coworkers. 

The policy change affects 53 workers, and only ten of these employees have indiciated that they would like to continue working at Ariens under the new policy. 

We pray by the time,” a former Ariens employee Ibrahim Mehemmed told WBAY. “So they say, ‘If you don’t pray at the break time,’ they give us this [unemployment] paper to just leave.” 

Advocates say employees at the company, which makes lawn mowers and snow blowers, and is located about 25 miles south of Green Bay, are being forced to quit.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that employers do not have to accommodate a religious practice if it causes “undue hardship” to the company by decreasing “workplace efficiency." 

"Unless they can prove 'undue hardship,' and that is definitely what is at the heart of the matter," then the policy change is illegal, Center for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Monday. "What one company thinks is an undue hardship is not actually. It is always a matter of debate and compromise." Mr. Hooper notes that federal law requires employers to offer “reasonable religious accommodations” to workers of all faith. 

But Ariens has thus far stood by their policy change. 

“We are open to any of the employees returning to work under the new policy or will look for openings in shifts that do not coincide with prayer time,” the company said in a statement. “We respect their faith, and we respect their decision regardless of their choice to return to work or not.” 

Hooper says that Ariens' claims of "undue hardship" accusations are unfounded.

"In this case, it seemed that things were going well. Ariens obviously had Muslim employees that were taking their prayer breaks and operating efficiently. What changed?" asks Hooper. Regardless of Ariens' reasons for the policy change, Hooper feels it wasn't urgent enough to leave almost 50 employees without a job.

"While we're working this out, let's go back to your original policy that seemed to work and then we can talk about some resolution that meets the needs of all parties," says Hooper.

Some fear Arien’s policy may cause a mass exodus by Green Bay’s Muslims. 

“If someone tells you, ‘you pray on your break,’ and the break time is not the prayer time, it will be impossible to pray,” employee Masjid Imam Hasan Abdi told WBAY News. “If they got fired now, there’s no way they’ll get to stay in Green Bay. They’ll have to move to find work.” 

CAIR was involved in a similar dispute earlier this month at a Cargill meat processing plant in Colorado. The outcome at Cargill may serve as a model for Ariens, as both sides seem to be working towards a compromise. 

On Dec. 23 Cargill fired some 130 employees for violating the company’s attendance policy while protesting changes to time allowed for Muslim prayer. If the protesting employees want to come back to work they will be eligible for rehire within 30 days, far less than the previous six-month probation period. Cargill spokesman Michael Martin said the beef-plant has been operating “at a significantly reduced capacity,” due to the firings and there is “certainly a desire to full staff” and operate at full capacity. 

The plant has two reflection rooms for all of its 2,100 employees to use for prayer. "There are times where we have to sequence how many people are allowed to go [to pray] so that production is not slowed down," Martin told CNN.

In another EEOC lawsuit filed in behalf of Somali Muslims working for the JBS meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Neb., a federal judge ruled in January 2015 that the the company had proven that “requested religious accommodations of unscheduled prayer breaks and/or mass meal breaks imposed an undue hardship on JBS,” according to U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp.

But Hooper thinks maybe these two recent "undue hardship" accusations within one month of each other could signal a larger US trend.

"We don't like to be too suspicious, but maybe they think the growing Islamaphobia in America will give them cover?" he asks. "Does some right-wing politics figure in here somehow?" 

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