|By Henry Pierson Curtis, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 22, 2004 - Wearing a hijab has meant not being able to work at Walt Disney World, according to a former employee who claims she lost her job because she refused to remove her Muslim head scarf.
Aicha Baha's civil-rights suit, served this week on Disney, may be the first-ever challenge of the employee dress code at the Central Florida attraction.
"To stop you from working for practicing your religion doesn't seem right to me," the Morocco-born Kissimmee resident said Friday. "There is a family here that is almost out on the street because of Disney."
The hijab is a head scarf that some Muslim women choose to wear as a sign of modesty. Disney policy prohibits the wearing of anything but Disney-issued hats and visors.
"We don't discriminate," Disney spokeswoman Veronica Clemons said, saying exceptions to the dress code for religious reasons are made on a case-by-case basis. "We do have cast members who have attire significant to their religions."
Disney policy prohibits discussion of lawsuits, she said.
Any form of discrimination over religious beliefs is prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires employers to accommodate workers' religious beliefs, "unless doing so would impose an undue hardship."
Undue hardship is not defined.
Baha, 32, worked at Walt Disney World from 1997 until mid-August 2002 and wore uniforms, referred to as "costumes," in her jobs as a bellhop and a sales clerk at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, according to interviews and the lawsuit she filed last week in federal court in Orlando.
She did not wear the hijab during that time.
But when she took maternity leave in 2002, her faith grew and she decided to wear the hijab when she returned to work in August.
"It wasn't something just for fun," she said. "It's like God is asking you to do it."
When Baha returned to her two jobs, she wore the scarf.
One was a part-time position as a bellhop. The other was a full-time sales job with commissions in The Pearl Factory, a franchise gift shop in the resort that requires employees to follow Disney's dress code, the lawsuit states.
Her supervisors, she said, would not let her continue working either job.
Disney offered to accommodate her religious attire with a "backstage" job out of the public view, the lawsuit states.
The Pearl Factory allowed Baha to continue wearing her scarf but transferred her away from Disney property, where the dress codes didn't apply. Her sales commissions fell from $400 to $700 a week to $40 a week at the new shop in the Old Town tourist attraction on U.S. Highway 192, she said.
She quit the Old Town job because of the drop in pay; Disney fired her from the part-time post because she refused to remove the scarf, according to the lawsuit.
"Plaintiff refused to work without her religious scarf as it is part of her religious beliefs and refused to be humiliated and downgraded by accepting the less favorable position in the backstage," the lawsuit states. "She was therefore terminated."
Baha's lawyer, Frank T. Allen of Orlando, described his client as an ideal employee who had embodied multicultural diversity and tolerance that Disney appears to champion through its worldwide marketing.
"This is totally contradictory to what they're portraying," he said.
What Disney workers wear has been regulated meticulously since Disneyland opened in 1955 to produce what is now marketed as the Disney experience.
"A big part of that show is you, with your quick smile, your eagerness to help and your willingness to maintain the Disney Look that our guests have come to associate with our very special brand," Walt Disney World Resort president Al Weiss wrote in the current employee handbook. "Each of you has helped uphold our heritage in so many ways, such as through your commitment to the Disney Look."
Everything from the socks on their feet to chewing gum, frowning in public and the cut of their hair is spelled out for the theme parks' 70,000 employees. But the resulting beard-free image conflicts with the distinctive religious attire and grooming practices for devout followers of Islam, Judaism and some other religions.
Arab-American groups say discrimination against Muslim women wearing hijabs has soared since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Just this week, the U.S.
Department of Justice announced that it had compelled an Oklahoma school district to permit its female students to wear hijabs in class.
"What is a surprise in this particular case, if these allegations are indeed true, are Walt Disney's response to them," said Rabiah Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C. "It being such a huge corporation, you would think they would be more sensitive to its employees' needs and diversity."
A sales clerk wearing a religious scarf should not disrupt anyone's Disney experience, according to the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee.
"I'm guessing she's not dressed as Snow White, just wearing the standard Walt Disney uniform," said Leila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the organization. "I don't think it [the hijab] impairs or in any way detracts from a person's experience at Disney World, and so our organization believes that you should make accommodations for religious clothing."
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