Case File: Religion
A woman was informed by a governmental official that she would not be allowed to pray. The case led to an apology, policy changes and a nominal settlement.
Nadia (not her real name) was applying for emergency assistance at a county government center when she realized it was time for prayers. She asked her caseworker for permission to pray in her cubicle, and her caseworker said that would be fine.
But when she began her prayers, another caseworker allegedly started cursing at her, picked up her her belongings, and tossed them around. As Nadia continued to pray, the employee grabbed her and started shouting: "Hey, listen, stop!… Talk to me when I'm talking to you. Move, listen to me!"
The first caseworker explained that permission had been given. "They will not talk to you when they are praying," she told her coworker. But the second caseworker persisted. "I'm going to call the police — you can't pray here — why are you ignoring me?" she demanded. "Stupid Somalis… what the hell is wrong with you!"
After finishing her prayers, Nadia opened her eyes and saw that a group of county employees had gathered around her, including a County Sheriff. She appealed to the Sheriff for help.
"Shut your mouth or I'm going to arrest you," the Sheriff allegedly responded. "Be quiet and leave the premises right now or in 5 seconds you're going to jail. Don't talk to me, go!"
Nadia left the building as ordered.
In a charge filed with the Department of Human Rights, she alleged that she was discriminated against in the area of public services by the county — specifically, that she was physically assaulted and subjected to derogatory language with regard to her national origin and religious beliefs.
In its investigation, the Department of Human Rights noted that observant Muslims pray five times a day, and that once a person begins a prayer, they are not supposed to stop except in the case of a life-threatening emergency. Although it was not possible to substantiate all of Nadia's claims, evidence showed that one of the County's employees had attempted to interrupt her religious practice, and continued to do so, even after being told permission has been granted. In denying Nadia an undisturbed place to pray and in removing her belongings, the caseworker's actions constituted illegal discrimination, the department found.
In a negotiated settlement, the county agreed to review and revise its policies to ensure compliance with the Minnesota Human Rights Act, to providing training on the Act, and to pay Nadia $1,500.00. It also agreed to send her a letter of apology. It denies that it violated the Act, and the settlement does not constitute an admission of any wrongdoing.