Sunday, October 27, 2013

Getting Down to the Meat of the Problem

           JBS is a food processing company located in various areas of the United States. One of its places of operation is in Grand Island, Nebraska. In past years, there has been some contention between the company and its Somali Muslim employees. The Muslim employees believe they should be granted exemptions during the work day to practice their religion, as granted by their rights in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, but JBS believes this burden on their religion is not as great as the burden the exemptions would have on the company.

            In 2007, about 80 to 100 of the Muslim employees protested working at JBS because the company had denied the Muslim employees’ request to use their “informal breaks”, such as bathroom breaks, to pray. Instead, JBS expected them to pray during scheduled breaks. In addition, in 2008, JBS refused to move the scheduled meal break to a time that corresponded with the sunset prayer time in order to accommodate for the observance of Ramadan.

            This issue was brought to the court by the EEOC, and the decision was made on October 11, 2013. The court decided in favor of JBS, denying the Muslim employees of the exemptions. Judge Camp had to decide whether the accommodation would generate a larger cost for the employer and other non-Muslim employees, or if it would generate a larger religious burden for the Muslim employees. After reviewing the case, Judge Camp decided that the use of “informal breaks” for prayer and the change in meal time would both result in a greater “undue hardship” for JBS than for the Muslim employees. With respect to prayer during informal breaks, if operation of the production lines were not stopped entirely during the prayer breaks, the remaining workers would have the pressure of working faster and harder, which would be hazardous for them. If the production were slowed down during these prayer breaks, the meat would be contaminated after being exposed to the air for a longer span of time. With respect to the change in meal time, JBS argues that a 30-minute break for all employees would provide a situation where the cattle would remain on the “kill floor” for more than 45 minutes, meaning a decrease in the meat’s value, and ultimately a financial loss for JBS.

            The question here is whether this case was decided correctly. Should the Muslim employees have been provided the accommodation for their religious practices during work time? Everyone is entitled to the free exercise of his or her religion, as granted by the First Amendment and the Muslim employees are clearly denied the ability to exercise their religious practices in accordance with their beliefs. Is the “undue hardship” incurred by JBS a great enough concern compared to the burden imposed on the Muslim employees?

            This issue is similar to the matter of contention seen in Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), with regards to hindrances on free exercise of one’s religion. In that case, the Supreme Court decided that Goldman would not be allowed the exemption to wear his yarmulke while on duty in the hospital for the Air Force. The Court argued that there was a compelling state interest for uniformity among the members of the Air Force. They believed the burden imposed on this mission as a result of Goldman wearing the yarmulke was greater than the burden imposed on Goldman’s right to free exercise of religion. Since this court ruling, though, the decision has been altered, in which members of the Air Force are now allowed to wear yarmulkes. In light of this understanding, was the decision in EEOC v. JBS USA the correct one, or is the religious burden great enough to garner an accommodation?

            Though both Goldman v. Weinberger (1986) and the present case appertain to the issue of free exercise of religion while on the job, I believe there is a difference in how they should be decided. While Goldman should have been allowed the exemption to wear his yarmulke, the Muslim employees still should not be granted the accommodation. Knowing that religious discrimination is a significant issue concerning constitutional rights, the employers at JBS needed sufficient reason and evidence to deny the Muslims’ ability to participate in their religious practices while at work. In that respect, JBS had adequate grounds to impose the religious burden on the Muslim employees. The accommodations would not only be detrimental to the success of the company as a whole, but would also burden the non-Muslim employees that would have to make up for the work missed while the Muslim employees left for prayer. While I do see that the Muslims feel this decision denies them of their constitutional rights, the accommodations for the Muslim employees would have too large a harmful, though unintended, effect on the company and employees that ultimately outweighs the Muslim employees’ rights to practice their religion.

10 comments:

Cori T said...

I agree with Maddie that the accommodation should not be granted and that JBS has adequate grounds to impose the religious burden on the Muslims. The financial loss and safety issues (others potentially working faster and/or meat being out longer) are pretty good reasons why the accommodation should not be made. If there was no cost or a very trivial one, I would say that JBS should make the accommodation.

Sayeh B said...

I think I would probably have to agree with Maddie in this situation. Initially, I didn't see any harm in granting the Muslim employees informal breaks/changing around the scheduling times for processing the meat, but after Maddie elaborated on the costs this would generate for JBS, I reconsidered. There is a very legitimate and compelling state interest in not giving Muslim employees those breaks because it could contaminate the meat, affect the working abilities of other workers, and ultimately damage the company as a whole. I don't know if it's fair to say that the burden placed on the Muslim employees in not practicing their religion is not as important/great as the burden placed on the company, but I think JBS has a legitimate reason in denying their Muslim employees these exemptions.

Terry B said...

I think JBS is neutral with their hours and breaks in this situation. I would have to use the slippery slope argument, in which if they allow this exception for this religious group who else do they have to accommodate for? By making it neutral for everyone they are not privileging one religion over another. I agree with JBS that they are doing the right thing.

Jennie M. said...

I understand that this case is different from Goldman because halting work at JBS so some employees can pray has greater negative ramifications for the company and fellow employees than wearing a yarmulke as a non-active military member (even though the Court decided against Goldman).

I also see some validity in the Court's argument but I would have accommodated the Muslim employees and moved the scheduled break to coincide with prayer time. Prayer during the day, especially during the month of Ramadan, is a significant religious duty for Muslims. I think restricting prayer times places a greater burden on the religious people, and JBS should have ben more accommodating.

Mike Spear said...

I would have to agree with the Judges Decision. The accommodation would create a very blatant and understandable burden on the non- Muslim employees as well as JBS. I respect an individuals right to free exercise, however in this case the groups right to exercise will have a direct effect on a large group of individuals. In addition, I would have to agree with Terry's argument. This exception could be create a slippery slope that could, in turn, collapse a successful business. This religious exception was rightly denied.

Benjamin S said...

I think a compromise should have been made in this case. Could not the company allow the Muslim workers to switch their breaks to a more convenient time? I understand that this could disrupt workflow, but I feel that with adequate accommodation and acclimation, the company could have easily made it work. Now say that it does create a burden on the company. Should a religious group be burdened with having to balance both their livelihood and their religious convictions? I think they shouldn’t. This isn’t like the case of the various small businesses refusing to offer services to same-sex couples. This is instead a direct burden that on a daily basis conflicts Islamic prayers. I feel sympathy for the workers and feel as though an accommodation should have been reached. At least an attempt made.

Kaela Diomede said...

I dont know if I agree with the Muslims not being accommodated, but I guess I can say that I understand why they aren't. I do think however that it would be just of JBS to accommodate during the high holy days of Ramadan. Ramadan is extremely important in the Muslim religion, and while people are allowed time off for Christmas for example, I think that it would have been progressive of JBS to allow for some religious accommodations during this month of religious devotion.

Dan W said...

I believe that the exemption should be granted. This is a legitimate tenant of the muslim faith that is required of all adherents. In this situation, the workers are forced to choose between following their bosses or following their religion, a choice no one should have to make. However, if these workers truly wanted to exercise true morality, perhaps they would be better off entering a different industry than meat processing.

Maggie S. said...

I think the workers should have been granted an exemption, I think it's an enormous and direct religious burden for them to not be able to pray during the day. This is not merely an indirect burden, as Ben pointed out, and I think the court was harsh in its decision. Without details as to the exact schedule of a workday it's hard to say what alternatives could have been reached, but on principle, I would have granted them the exemption because it's forcing them to make a choice between earning a living or practicing their faith.

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