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Muslim flight attendant suspended for refusing to serve alcohol files federal complaint

Flight attendant Charee Stanley. (Courtesy CAIR)
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A Muslim employee of a U.S. airline has filed a federal complaint, alleging she was placed on administrative leave after refusing to serve alcohol for religious reasons.

For three years, Charee Stanley has been a flight attendant with Atlanta-based ExpressJet Airlines. But, two years ago, she chose a faith that, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has often been the subject of controversy in American airports: Islam.

Stanley’s conversion brought an outward change — she started wearing a hijab. But the 40-year-old flight attendant also felt that her new faith prevented her from fulfilling what some might consider a fundamental part of her job: serving alcohol.

[Kim Davis and the Muslim flight attendant: When does your religion legally excuse you from doing part of your job?]

So, in June, she asked her supervisor at ExpressJet for a religious accommodation. Flight attendants have many responsibilities — getting passengers seated, performing safety demonstrations, checking overhead compartments. Would it be possible for one of Stanley’s colleagues to serve drinks while she did something else?

Yes, she was told. A supervisor “accommodated Ms. Stanley’s request by directing her to make arrangements with the other flight attendant on duty such that when a customer requests to be served alcohol, the other flight attendant would accommodate that request,” according an Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint Stanley filed last week.

For a while, all went well: “The requested accommodation does not interfere with Ms. Stanley’s performance, is a reasonable religious accommodation and has not caused any undue hardship upon ExpressJet,” according to her complaint.

Yet, in early August, an airline employee filed an internal complaint against Stanley. Stanley was not doing her job when refusing to serve alcohol, the employee alleged, also calling attention to Stanley’s “headdress” and a book she carried with “foreign writings.”

And, late last month, ExpressJet reversed itself. The airline, as explained in Stanley’s complaint, told her “it was revoking its religious accommodation of excluding service of alcohol from her duties.” Stanley was placed on administrative leave without pay for 12 months — “after which her employment would be administratively terminated.”

Now, Stanley is seeking redress from the EEOC in what her lawyer called “just one example” of many discrimination complaints “filed recently as a result of Islamophobia throughout the country.”

“She was disciplined for following the direction that her employer told her to do,” Lena Masri, the senior staff attorney at the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “Her employer instructed her to work out an arrangement with the other flight attendants. Until this date, there was no issue. There was no change in circumstances that would justify ExpressJet Airlines in disciplining her.”

Masri said that ExpressJet acknowledged serving alcohol was “not an essential duty or function of flight attendant” by granting the religious accommodation. By reversing itself, Masri said, the company has violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents employers from discriminating against employees for religious reasons.

Masri noted CAIR had seen “a significant rise in the number of discrimination complaints.” She compared Stanley’s case to that of another client she represented two years ago — a Muslim waitress in Detroit dismissed from work for wearing a hijab. Masri said that case found “positive resolution” out of court.

“I’m hopeful that ExpressJet Airlines will acknowledge that reasonable accommodation in place … to accommodate for Ms. Stanley’s religious beliefs and to accommodate passengers,” Masri said. The EEOC has six months to make a ruling. If the commission does not find for Stanley, Masri said, “we would at that point consider taking the case to federal court.”

This is, of course, not the first time a Muslim has claimed they were discriminated against by an airline. In June, for example, a Muslim-American chaplain at Northwestern University was denied a can of soda by a United Airlines flight attendant who claimed it could be used as weapon. United apologized; the employee “will no longer serve United customers,” it said.

ExpressJet issued a statement after Stanley filed her complaint, but declined to comment on specific personnel matters.

“At ExpressJet, we embrace and respect the values of all of our team members,” the company said in a statement, as the Associated Press reported. “We are an equal opportunity employer with a long history of diversity in our workforce.”