Islam's five daily prayers only take a few minutes, and most can take place within a span of a few hours. The daily devotion at sunset, however, must be completed within a 20- to 30-minute window. This is the prayer that sparked the conflict at the Dell plant. Before last month's standoff, Muslim workers there employed a system in which Muslim co-workers would stand in for each other on the line as their colleagues took a few minutes to pray in a quiet spot away from the floor of the plant.
Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director at the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said this is not the first time Muslim assembly-line workers have run into a conflict between their job and their faith.
Abdi Halane, left, and Hassan Ahmed pray the Islamic sunset prayer at Somali center in Nashville. Halane is one of 30 Muslims who quit their jobs at Dell over the prayer issue.
(Eric Parsons -- The Tennessean Via AP)
"It's a problem for recent immigrant Muslims because they often do manufacturing and production work," Hooper said. "It tends to be a first-generation issue."
Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer must accommodate an employee's religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the company.
In a similar dispute last year, a Muslim employee of a Whirlpool Corp. plant in La Vergne, Tenn., sued the appliance manufacturer for the right to take a regular break to conduct his sunset prayer. A jury sided with the manufacturer, which argued that allowing the practice could disrupt the plant's productivity.
Charges of religious discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by Muslims have increased since 2001, while filings from other religious groups have remained steady or declined. As a group, Muslims now file the most religious discrimination charges with the EEOC.
Most filings with the EEOC are settled without a lawsuit, however. Last year, there were 775 Muslim-filed complaints, but the commission typically only files between 12 and 20 religious-discrimination lawsuits a year, according to EEOC spokesman David Grinberg.
Frink at Dell said yesterday that the computer maker does not expect to see this issue in court. "We are very confident that we are going to be able to resolve this thing beneficially and in relatively short order," he said.
While Halane said that he would go back to his job if Dell and Spherion decide to make allowances for Muslims who need to pray, Abdi H. Nuur, another former worker at the plant said he would not. "The only thing that keeps us alive is our faith," he said. "It's easy to find another job."