To help find her disabled son a ride to his doctor's appointments five years ago, Linda Turpin Muhammad turned to a Manassas interfaith group of churches and synagogues that finds members to volunteer their services.
But instead of help, Muhammad said, she got a dose of discrimination after telling a worker at Prince William Interfaith Caregivers that she is Muslim. Muhammad alleges that the group denied her request because it does not serve Muslims, leaving her stranded without transportation for her son.
Interfaith Caregivers officials counter that Muhammad's request was denied because volunteers were unavailable and that there was no discrimination.
Five years later, the run-in has wended its way through two courts and the Prince William County Human Rights Commission, where Muhammad filed a complaint shortly after the incident, alleging that Interfaith Caregivers discriminated against her because of her faith.
The claim languished with the commission for three years before it was dismissed. The panel ruled that it had no jurisdiction over the case. By then it was too late for Muhammad to sue Interfaith Caregivers.
This week, she will ask the Board of County Supervisors to award her $20,000 as compensation for the county's failure to inform her that she could have fought her case in court.
"I know this is not a million-dollar case," said Muhammad, 57, a restaurant worker who has since moved with her son from Dale City to Alexandria. "But I don't want this to happen to anybody else.
"It's the principle of the matter," she said. "This caused myself and my son such anguish."
Assistant County Attorney Angela M. Lemmon said that even if Interfaith Caregivers denied Muhammad's son a ride, the Human Rights Commission was under no obligation to inform her that she could take her case to court. The county also has no law requiring the panel to rule on cases in a timely manner.
"No county law says the commission must tell someone of a right to sue," said Lemmon, who noted that Muhammad's failure to attempt a lawsuit against Interfaith Caregivers weakens her case against the county.
Muhammad, who suffers from a disabling hip injury, said she called Interfaith Caregivers in April 1994 to arrange several rides to medical appointments and social service agencies for her son, now 32, who has a "chemical imbalance" that prevents him from driving. She said she was shocked when an intake worker asked her to identify her faith. When she said she was Muslim, Muhammad alleges, the worker "went from extremely nice to cold and snappy." The worker then told her the group would not be able to find volunteers to pick up her son, Muhammad said.
"It was obvious to me she had a problem with my religion," she said.
Officials at Interfaith Caregivers, a consortium of 215 churches, temples and two mosques new to Prince William County, said discrimination had nothing to do with turning down Muhammad's request. Director Elizabeth Liska said that some of the dates Muhammad requested for rides were just a few days away and that it was unclear whether a volunteer could be found in time to help. Liska said Muhammad called the group back to withdraw her request.
"It definitely was not discrimination," Liska said. "She asked for a service on short notice. It depends on availability."
Liska said the organization routinely asks callers their faith to match them up with volunteers of that faith. The Human Rights Commission, which hears claims of discrimination against residents excluded from housing, jobs, public facilities and schools, dismissed Muhammad's claim in June 1997, ruling that Interfaith Caregivers, a group of volunteers, is not a public facility and therefore is not subject to the federal Civil Rights Act.
County officials acknowledge that the claim took an unusually long time to be heard. The delay occurred during a period of turmoil in the commission, when cases remained unresolved for years. The commission's director, Evelyn J. Ellington, was fired by the county in September 1997.
When her claim was dismissed, Muhammad wanted to take the case to court but learned that the two-year statute of limitations on discrimination cases had expired. In June 1998, she sued the county in federal court in Alexandria, alleging that the delay denied her the right to sue Interfaith Caregivers. That case was dismissed. Muhammad withdrew a similar suit she had filed last June in Prince William County Circuit Court.