Case of the Month: August 2011

Hennepin County settles charge that it discriminated against Somali Muslim female who sought to pray during visit to government center

Case 53938 Closed 8-11-11


County of Hennepin
A-2303 Hennepin County Government Center
300 S Sixth St. Minneapolis MN 55487-0233

Charging Party

Rhamo Hashi
Robbinsdale MN

The following information is a summary of the department's findings and contains excerpts from other public documents relevant to this case.

Factual Basis of the Allegations — What the Charging Party Alleged

Rhamo Hashi is a Somali female who practices Islam. On October 10, 2008, she was applying for Emergency Assistance and meeting with a caseworker at Hennepin County's Century Plaza location, when she realized it was time for prayers, as required by her religion. She asked her caseworker for permission to pray in her cubicle, and the caseworker said that would be fine. But when she began her prayers, another caseworker began cursing at her, picked up her belongings, and tossed them around. The employee then grabbed Hashi, pushing and pulling at her. As Hashi struggled to continue her prayers, the employee started shouting: "Hey, listen, stop!" and "Talk to me when I'm talking to you, move, listen to me."

Although the first caseworker advised her coworker that Muslims "don't talk to you when they are praying," the second caseworker continued her hostile behavior. "I'm going to call the police — you can't pray here — why are you ignoring me?" the second caseworker demanded. "Stupid Somalis… what the hell is wrong with you," she allegedly yelled.

After finishing her prayers, Hashi opened her eyes and saw that a group of county employees had gathered around her, including a Hennepin County Sheriff. She asked the officer for help. "Shut your mouth or I'm going to arrest you," the officer responded. "Be quiet and leave the premises right now or in 5 seconds you're going to jail," he continued. "Don't talk to me, go!"

Hashi left the building as ordered.

In a charge filed with the Department of Human Rights, Hashi alleged that she was discriminated against in the area of public services by Hennepin County. Specifically, she alleged that she was physically assaulted and subjected to derogatory language with regard to her national origin and religious beliefs.

Summary of the Commissioner's Memorandum — What the Department's Investigation Found

In answering the charge, Hennepin County denied that it had discriminated against Hashi. The county argued that Hashi had been praying in a high traffic area, had been asked to move but refused, and when she would not calm down, she was asked to leave.

In its investigation, the Department of Human Rights noted that observant Muslims pray five times a day. The prayers are spoken aloud and accompanied by rituals of bowing and kneeling. Once a person begins a prayer, they are not supposed to stop except in the case of a life-threatening emergency.

Because Hennepin County's Century Plaza location has a diverse clientele and the wait to see a caseworker can be long, it is likely that some of its clients will need a place to pray while on county premises. The county provided such a place — a small corner next to the elevators had been designated as a prayer location for Emergency Assistance clients.

However, not all county employees knew where the prayer location was, the department's investigation determined. Although the caseworker who gave Hashi permission to pray in her cube had been working at the Century Plaza location for six or seven months, she had not been told where to send clients who asked to pray. Thus, although Hennepin County had provided a space to accommodate religious practices, the accommodation was not effective.

The accounts of witnesses interviewed by the department, including the two caseworkers who interacted with Hashi, differed as to what happened on October 10. In her defense, the caseworker who had allegedly ordered Hashi to stop praying and move, asserted that Hashi had posed a safety hazard. She stated that she feared that someone would fall over her, injuring both that person and Hashi badly enough to require paramedics. Despite Hashi's claims that the caseworker had repeatedly harangued and assaulted her, she said she had spoken only once to Hashi to tell her to move. She had touched her, but only once, on the shoulder, she said. And she had not thrown Hashi's coat and phone around as alleged, though she admitted that she had moved the items to another location.

The first caseworker agreed with Hashi's account that the second caseworker had persisted and continued to order her to move while she was praying, even after being told that she had been given permission to pray in that location. The first caseworker also did not support her coworker's account that Hashi's presence had created a safety hazard. The claim that the second caseworker had made various derogatory remarks about Somalis could not be confirmed — neither the first caseworker nor another witness remembered hearing

There was no reason to believe that either the Sheriff or a security guard at the scene had acted as they did because of Hashi's religion or national origin, the department found. "Evidence showed that actions of the respondent's security personnel and sheriff's deputy were occasioned by the charging party's angry reactions after she completed her prayer, which were precipitated by the respondent's employee's actions and her refusal to disengage from the conflict," the department noted.

Although it was not possible to substantiate Hashi's claims that she was harassed because of her national origin, evidence showed that one of Hennepin County's employees attempted to interrupt her religious practice and continued to do so, even after being told that Hashi had permission to pray where she was, the department's investigation found. In denying Hashi an undisturbed place to pray and in removing her belongings, the caseworker's actions constituted illegal discrimination, the department found. The department concluded, "Although not all of the charging party's claims could be substantiated, evidence showed that the second employee's actions, which were particularly inappropriate for a public employee, effectively denied the charging party full utilization of, and benefit from, the respondent's services because of her religion, in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act."

Terms of Settlement

In a settlement negotiated with the Department of Human Rights, Hennepin County agreed:

  • That the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) will conduct at least two training sessions for Respondent and its employees at the Century Plaza location;
  • That Hennepin county will develop and adopt written policies and procedures addressing its obligations as a public service under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, or, if policies and procedures already exist, it will review and revise them as needed to ensure compliance with the Minnesota Human Rights Act;
  • That it will send an email to all of its employees who work in the Century Plaza location, informing them of designated areas within the public/common space of the building that would be conducive to meditation and/or prayer. These spaces will be designated with small signs;
  • That it will pay Hashi the sum of fifteen hundred dollars (1,500.00), and will send her a letter of apology. The respondents deny that they violated the Minnesota Human Right Act (MHRA), and the settlement of this case does not constitute an admission of any liability of violating the MHRA or any other law, or of any wrongdoing.

The Department of Human Rights publishes information about selected cases and settlement agreements, including its "Case of the Month," as part of its mandate under the Human Rights Act to "educate to eliminate" discrimination. Settlement agreements do not constitute an admission of any liability, an admission of a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act or any other law, or an admission of wrongdoing by the respondents.