A group of Muslim workers allege they were fired by a New Brighton tortilla factory for refusing to wear uniforms that they say were immodest by Islamic standards.

Six Somali women claim they were ordered by a manager to wear pants and shirts to work instead of their traditional Islamic clothing of loose-fitting skirts and scarves, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil liberties group that is representing the women.

The women have filed a religious discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"For these women, wearing tight-fitting pants is like being naked," said Valerie Shirley, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota chapter of CAIR. "It's simply not an option."

CAIR issued a press release calling on Mission Foods to reinstate the women in their jobs. However, the group declined to disclose the names of the women and would not make them available for interviews Tuesday.

Gruma Corp., the Irving, Texas-based parent company of Mission Foods, released a written statement Tuesday denying that any employees were terminated or disciplined at the New Brighton plant. However, the company made clear the six women have been relieved of their responsibilities for the time being, and may ultimately lose their jobs if they don't wear uniforms.

"Should these employees choose to adhere to the current Mission Foods uniform policy, they may return to their positions with the company," the company statement said. "However, these positions will need to be filled as soon as possible and cannot be held indefinitely."

A company spokeswoman said she could not provide photographs of the uniforms.

Latest dispute

Such disputes have intensified as the American Muslim community grows in numbers and becomes more politically organized, said Thomas Berg, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas. "After 9/11, both the number of conflicts arose but also the sense among Muslims that they needed to stand together -- at least to oppose unjustified actions," he said.

Last year, some Muslim cashiers at Target Corp. were shifted to other positions inside stores after they refused to scan pork products because doing so would violate their religious beliefs. And in 2005, 26 workers were either fired or suspended by an Arden Hills electronics manufacturer for violating the company's prayer rules, which set limits on the times they could break for prayers.

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 says employers must accommodate workers' religious beliefs, so long as the requests are "reasonable" and do not create "undue hardship" for the company. But the definition of what's reasonable and what constitutes hardship can vary dramatically from one case to the next.

A security firm, for instance, may have a prudent reason for requiring workers to wear uniforms, while a doctor's office might not. "Each of these cases turns on the facts," Berg said.

For many Muslim women, wearing loose-fitting clothing is a religious requirement. Clothing that highlights parts of a women's body or accentuates curves is often considered immodest. A headscarf, or hijab, is seen by many Muslim women as a way to express their faith and avoid unwanted sexual attention.

At the Mission Foods plant, the Muslim workers had already made some accommodations, said Shirley, the CAIR spokeswoman. They had agreed to wear coats over their scarves, but the company took them away before imposing a new dress code that involved trousers and shirts, she said.

The women's traditional clothing was loose-fitting but never posed a safety risk, Shirley said, because the six women put tortillas in packages and did not work near machinery. "Tortillas came down a conveyor belt onto a table and they packaged them with their hands," she said. "There wasn't even the potential of a safety hazard."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308