Nearly two dozen Muslim Somali-Americans are filing discrimination charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity against hardware maker AmesburyTruth and Doherty Staffing Solutions.
The fired workers said they were denied a place to pray at an Owatonna, Minn., manufacturing plant and lost their jobs for trying to practice their religion.
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is leading the effort on behalf of 21 former workers who were terminated in May and June 2015.
The employees were told that if they could not comply with the plant's break schedule or could not wait until their shifts were over to pray, they could not continue working, according to the council, which goes by the acronym CAIR-MN and is a member of the nation's largest Islamic civil liberties advocacy group.
A number of workers were told to go home and wait for the company to make accommodations but were never called back to work, according to CAIR-MN. Some employees were fired for "violating the bathroom policy" by spilling water on the floor.
Followers of Islam pray five times each day — at daybreak, midday, afternoon, sunset and at night. Before prayer, Muslims are required to wash their faces, hands and feet with clean water, which normally is performed in a restroom sink.
AmesburyTruth is headquartered in Edina and makes hardware for doors and windows, weatherstrips and extrusions. The company has about 2,000 employees at 11 locations around the country.
The Owatonna plant employs about 800 workers and specializes in making windows, hinges, locks and other hardware used in casement windows.
Kevin Anez, marketing director for AmesburyTruth, declined to comment on the case because it was a pending legal matter, but issued a statement saying the company did nothing wrong.
"AmesburyTruth complies with all local, state and federal workplace laws. We adamantly deny any wrongdoing related to the pending EEOC charge."
Representatives from Doherty Staffing, an Edina employment firm that placed some of the former workers, did not return requests for comment.
Under the law, both would be responsible for the working conditions.
CAIR-MN has scheduled a news conference at 10:30 a.m. Thursday to discuss the filing.
CAIR-MN's civil rights director Amarita Singh underscored that Muslim employees have the constitutional right to have employers accommodate their religious practices.
"These employees were working on an assembly line in a manufacturing plant," Singh said. "They wanted to pray, and the company said they were not able to accommodate them because if they step away they can't keep the production line going."
Jaylani Hussein, CAIR-MN's executive director, said more than 50 percent of the organization's casework now comes from these types of workers' rights cases, though many are resolved without needing to involve the courts.
Muslims are being singled out and targeted in greater numbers, Hussein and Singh said, often in reaction to suicide attacks by extremists.
Nationwide, anti-Muslim sentiment has risen dramatically in the past year, sparking protests and anti-refugee legislation in Idaho, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and elsewhere, said Stephen Piggott of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit focused on civil rights.
"Not that things were so much easier years ago," Singh said, "but this is a specific and unique time in terms of the climate and rhetoric in the media."