Federal officials have accused Mesaba Airlines of violating civil rights law by refusing to let workers swap shifts with other employees in order to observe religious holidays.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accused Eagan-based Mesaba of requiring a Jewish customer service agent to work past sundown on a Friday evening, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. The EEOC also alleges that Mesaba turned down a Christian job applicant because he declined to work on Sunday mornings so he could attend church.

The EEOC said it believes other Mesaba workers and job applicants were hurt by the airline's shift-swapping policy that prohibited workers from making voluntary shift swaps in their first 90 days of employment. Mesaba has since dropped the challenged policy, but the U.S. agency is seeking back pay and punitive damages. Northwest Airlines acquired Mesaba in bankruptcy last year.

"Mesaba Airlines values its employees and is dedicated to ... personnel policies that respect their religious practices and accommodate them as required by law," said John Spanjers, Mesaba president.

The lawsuit is the latest in a string of religious discrimination cases filed by the EEOC against Minnesota companies. Last month, the agency accused St. Cloud-based Gold'n Plump of refusing prayer breaks for Muslim workers and requiring Muslim job applicants at its Cold Spring, Minn., chicken processing plant to sign a form acknowledging that they might be required to handle pork products, which many Muslims consider unclean.

In its suit against Mesaba, the EEOC alleges that Laura Vallejos, Minneapolis, refused to work past sundown on Sept. 29, 2006, and was fired by Mesaba a week later. Vallejos, a customer service agent at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC's Minneapolis office.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308