Sunday, March 1, 2015

Religious Discrimination Against Muslim Athlete

Mohamed Fall is a 28 year old immigrant from Senegal. Fall was a basketball star at Ohio Christian University, earning Ohio Collegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year and Second Team NCCAA All-American honors. Fall was raised in a Muslim home and considers himself to be Islamic. Fall has been attending LA Fitness in the Cincinnati, Ohio since October, 2013. After his workout at the gym Fall would often, "retreat to an empty, obscure corner of the men's locker room, next to an empty coat rack, face the wall and conduct Salat or prayer, quietly to himself for approximately 5-10 minutes." This ritual had never been a problem for Fall or anyone at LA Fitness until January 19, 2015. During the middle of Mr. Fall's prayer he was "surrounded by three men, who were managers and/or employees at LA Fitness."  These men demanded that Fall cease his prayer immediately and ordered that he no longer pray at the gym. In an interview with local channel 12 news Fall claimed, "I'm not gonna lie to you, I felt afraid for my life." Fall gathered his things and departed. Fall has filed a lawsuit against LA Fitness and the employees and/or managers. Fall filed a "verified complaint for temporary restraining and declaratory and injunctive relief."  

Fall was "confused and concerned" after the incident. Fall feels as though he is very conscientious of others when he performs Salat in the locker room and has never directly or indirectly heard a complaint. While playing basketball at Ohio Christian University, Fall was allowed to pray in the locker room before or after competition. The three men were allegedly ordered by someone in the LA Fitness corporate office to tell Fall he couldn't pray anywhere in the gym. If Fall refused he wouldn't be allowed to attend the gym any longer. 

Fall believes this event was an act of religious hostility and that, "he was singled out because he is a Muslim." Fall claims he has witnessed other men at the gym engage in religious prayer or religious activities such as making the sign of the cross, but those men were never threatened with expulsion from the gym.  

The salient issue here is that Mr. Fall feels he as been deprived of his religious freedom, other civil rights, and even, "the deprivation of living a peaceful existence." Fall claims the defendants violated his Civil rights and discriminated against him due to his religion and prohibited him from practicing his faith in a place of "public accommodation." LA fitness is considered a place of public accommodation, according to 42 USC 200a, "All persons be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the good services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin." Fall claims this experience has caused him financial and emotional harm. The complaint goes so far as to say that the harassment from the defendants has, "made him [Mr. Fall] feel that he has done something wrong by praying." 

This case brings forth the issues of hostility towards religion, religious discrimination, and violation of the free exercise clause.  

I think Mohamed Fall should be permitted to conduct Salat in the way he has done in the past at LA Fitness. Firstly the fact that men of different faiths are being permitted to engage in religious prayer and activities such as the signal of the cross mean that the LA Fitness policy on religious expression is not one that is religion neutral. If Fall is going to be approached by management in an aggressive manner for conducting his faith's form of prayer, so should everyone that preforms religious acts of any faith. This signaling out of the Muslim faith at the Ohio, LA fitness is an example of a policy and action that lacks religious neutrality, and instead discriminates based on race or religion. Secondly, by definition of 42 USC 200a, LA Fitness is a place of "public accommodation." This means that all people will be given equal opportunity to all the club has to offer and will not be discriminated against in any manner. Mohamed Fall pays for membership just like any other member of the club, and should not be discriminated against for silently and peacefully expressing his religion in that setting. Fall should be able to express his faith without fear of discrimination. I don't believe there is a realistic argument for the threat of a slippery slope. Given the facts of the case, Fall is conducting his prayer in a location and manner that doesn't directly or indirectly impact anyone other than himself. The case would be different if someone were to claim a right to cause inappropriate distraction or interruption that negatively impacted other paying members of the gym. Also I believe there is a lack of compelling state interest in regulating Fall's action. As highlighted in the complaint, "The harm plaintiff will sustain if this preliminary injunction is not granted is far greater than any potential harm the defendants may sustain," and "the issuance of a preliminary injunction is in the public's interest." There is no compelling state interest in preventing Mohamed Fall from practicing his faith in an obscure corner of the gym, but there is clear potential for further issue if he is prevented from doing so. 

The LA Fitness website claims, "When you enter a LA Fitness you know what to expect…what we are most proud of is the people who are there to serve you. The people who warmly greet you, expertly train you, enthusiastically teach you. It is our entire team, our best resource, who is dedicated to making your fitness experience an exceptional one." Perhaps this is true, unless you are a muslim trying to "reasonably and respectfully" exercise your faith without fear of religious discrimination, in which case you will be treated with hostility and disapproval. The same people who were supposed to "warmly greet" and make Mohamed Fall's fitness experience "exceptional,' were the ones who discriminated against a paying member based on his religion, and made him feel uncomfortable and emotionally distressed.  

What do you think? Should Mohamed Fall be allowed to pray in the locker room of LA Fitness? 

See the news article and complaint here.

1 comment:

Adam Drake said...

I agree with your conclusion. I do not see any state interest in preventing an individual from praying in this manner. Mr. Fall explicitly attempted to perform his religious duty away from others. This prayer does not pose a threat to safety or the economic standing of LA Fitness. This rule is discriminatory against the Muslim faith. As Trevor stated, for this law to be neutral every expression of faith within LA Fitness must be met with the exact same punishments that befell Mr. Fall. As long as there is no threat to safety and no explicit contract then LA Fitness has no right to remove Mohamed Fall, especially because he has been doing this for years without complaint.