October 24, 2011

Religion in the News

by Brandi Denison

This past week, several incidents occurring west of the Mississippi have called attention to the way in which the religious diversity of the American West leads can lead to friction.

First, in Roosevelt, Utah, a small town in eastern Utah, police officers used pepper spray against an "unruly" crowd at a high school football game. The Washington Post reported that a group of Polynesian men had come to the came to support a relative, who was playing for Union High School. Union had lost the game, but to rally the team's spirits, the relatives decided to perform the Haka, a traditional Maori dance that has been appropriated by sports teams as a pre-game ritual. You can see a video of the All-Blacks (New Zealand's soccer team) perform it here. Police reported that they did not know the Haka would be performed and were alarmed by the aggressive dance.

This space is no stranger to governmental crackdowns on indigenous dance practices. Roosevelt borders the Ouray-Uintah Ute reservation--a space where, in the early twentieth century, authorities attempted to quell the Sun Dance and other traditional practices.

Second, earlier this month, the Seattle division of Hertz, the car rental company, fired 26 Somali Muslims for failing to clock out during prayers. The Washington Post reported that 34 workers were suspended for not clocking out during breaks, which the company contends includes prayers. Eight employees were reinstated once they agreed to sign out. The union which represents the drivers, Teamsters Local 117, contends that the most recent contact states that workers would not need to clock out for prayers. Seventy percent of the Hertz employees the union represents are Muslim, making this contract dispute significant. Hertz argues that their policy is not discriminatory, but instead, making sure that all their employees are treated fairly. 

This isn't the full story, though. You might think this all sounds familiar. That's because in 2009, non-Muslim Hertz employees in Atlanta sued the company for not requiring Muslim employees to clock out during prayers. Like the Seattle case, the non-Muslim employees in Atlanta were concerned about fairness. Muslim employees, the lawsuit contended, had up to three 15-minute paid breaks a day.

Are these two cases simply about maintaining order and fairness? Or are there elements of racial and religious discrimination in each? What do you think?

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