Woman sues store over ban on scarf

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She says she lost her job at Git-N-Go because of religious and racial bias. The company has not filed a response.

A Des Moines woman says she lost her convenience store job because she wore a head scarf required by her Islamic religion.

Aaliyah Withers-Johnson, 19, has sued Git-N-Go Convenience Stores Inc. in federal court over what she claims was a company official’s warning that she could not work for the store if she insisted on wearing the scarf, called a hijab.

Withers-Johnson, who is Muslim and black, accuses the company of religious and racial discrimination. She seeks an unspecified amount of money and wants the company to review its hiring and promotion practices, impose race-bias testing on some managers, and provide sensitivity training for all employees, said her attorney, Jill Zwagerman.

Withers-Johnson, who grew up in St. Paul, Minn., declined through her lawyer to be interviewed. She is married, has a young child and is a sophomore psychology major at Drake University.

Git-N-Go officials did not respond to interview requests Tuesday. The company has not filed a formal response to the lawsuit.


Withers-Johnson’s case is among dozens of religious discrimination cases and hundreds of racial discrimination cases reviewed each year by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission before lawsuits are filed.

The number of such cases has held steady in Iowa in recent years. Excluding housing complaints, there were 41 religious discrimination cases in 2003 and 42 in 2002, the two most recent years for which data are available. There were 560 racial discrimination cases in 2003 and 572 in 2002, said Mary Cowdrey, an administrative law judge with the commission.

Nationally, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported a notable upswing in allegations of religious discrimination cases after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The number of those complaints climbed from 1,939 in 2000 to 2,532 in 2003.

James Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. commission, said employers are required by law to “reasonably accommodate” employees’ religious beliefs. A request to wear a head scarf, for example, could be legally denied if it affects the employee’s ability to safely do the job but not simply because it bothers other people.

Withers-Johnson says she wore the scarf on March 11, 2005, when she interviewed for a clerk job. Nothing was said about the scarf during the interview, she said. She was hired and told to report for training six days later.

At her initial training session, Withers-Johnson claims in the lawsuit, a company official told her she would not be able to work “because of the thing you are wearing on your head.”

Withers-Johnson said she responded that her religion requires her to wear the head scarf.

The official then explained that company policy says “employees cannot wear baseball caps, scarves, or anything on their head,” according to the lawsuit. That same official later spoke disparagingly to colleagues about Withers-Johnson’s scarf, saying “I can tell the difference between a do-rag, a scarf, and all that she had on her head,” the lawsuit claims.

“All she knew is that she walked in expecting to have a job,” said Zwagerman, Withers-Johnson’s lawyer. “And she gets in there and they start making very, very insensitive remarks, and embarrassing her and humiliating her.”

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Des Moines Register, USA
Mar. 8, 2006
Kevin Dobbs, Register Staff Writer
desmoinesregister.com

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