Company must pay Muslim woman for banning scarf

By The Associated Press
06.04.07

PHOENIX — A federal jury has ordered Alamo Rent A Car to pay a Muslim woman $287,640 for firing her because she refused to remove a head scarf she was wearing during the holy month of Ramadan.

The firing of Bilan Nur, then 22, came just four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company for what it termed a “post 9/11 backlash,” alleging that she was fired because of her religious beliefs in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn O. Silver ruled last year that the government had proven religious discrimination and Alamo had shown no proof that it had taken reasonable steps to allow Nur to follow her beliefs before firing her.

That left the jury in the trial that ended June 1 with only the question of how much damages to award, said Mary Jo O’Neill, the regional attorney for the EEOC.

The jury in the three-day trial awarded Nur $21,640 in back wages, $16,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages.

Nur, a Somali who fled the war-ravaged country and came to the U.S. in 1998, was hired by Alamo as a rental agent at its Phoenix office in November 1999. Her job performance was described as “fine,” until the events leading to her firing, Judge Silver wrote in her ruling.

But that changed in 2001, when Nur asked her bosses at Alamo for permission to wear a head scarf during Ramadan, which began November 16. She was told that she could wear a scarf while in the back office, but must remove it when she came to the counter to help customers.

The company’s dress code did not specifically ban scarves but contained a provision barring any “garments or item of clothing not specifically mentioned in the policy.”

Nur showed up for work wearing a head scarf anyway, and was sent home and issued a written warning. The next day, she again arrived at work wearing a scarf and was written up and sent home, then suspended and fired.

The company argued in its court papers that Nur’s religious beliefs did not conflict with her job requirements because her “personal practice” did not require that she always wear a head scarf during Ramadan, Silver wrote. They noted that the year before, management had ordered her not to wear a scarf and she complied. She also worked for several days after Ramadan began in 2001 without raising the issue, suggesting to the company that her religious beliefs were not that strong.

Silver rejected that argument, writing that Nur’s words and actions — consistently telling supervisors she needed to wear a head covering and continuing to wear one — was consistent with a sincere religious belief. She also said there was no testimony showing Nur hadn’t worn a scarf all through the holy period.

Alamo spokesman Charles L. Pulley said June 2 that the company would have no comment on the verdict. Alamo is owned by Tulsa, Okla.-based Vanguard Car Rental Group Inc., which also owns National Car Rental.

O’Neill said Alamo continued to deny it had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act during the nearly six years since the case was filed, and the judge’s ruling and the June 1 jury award showed they were wrong.

“Title VII protects people of all religious beliefs,” O’Neill said. “No one should have to sacrifice their religious beliefs in order to keep a job.”