Religious Discrimination at the Best Western?

A Muslim employee sues after being fired for wearing a head scarf.

Two months after Faiza Abu started working the front desk at the Best Western Airport Executel in SeaTac, new staff uniforms arrived. A Muslim head scarf she had been wearing since she’d taken the job wouldn’t work with the new garb, her manager told her. But she kept wearing the scarf, called a hijab, for religious reasons.

“Either you’re going to take it off or I’m going to fire you,” she says the hotel’s manager, Shawn Walters, told her. “I didn’t take it off—and he fired me.”

Now the 20-year-old Abu, who is pursuing a nursing degree at Highline Community College, is suing the hotel and its parent company, Piramco Inc., for religious discrimination.

When the Airport Executel hired her in August 2006, Abu says she went over the employee handbook with her new boss. She wasn’t wearing a head scarf at the time, she adds, but made her faith clear. Abu says Piramco later claimed that not wearing the hijab at the interview showed her faith wasn’t sincere enough.

“My whole background’s Muslim,” she says. Though she wore no scarf at the interview, she told her boss she would in the future. “He said he had no problem with that.”

Later that month, Abu started wearing a black scarf to work. No one had a problem with it then, she says. But in October new uniforms arrived: navy-blue pants, a white button-up shirt, and a navy-blue vest. (Previously, employees had just been told to dress nicely.) For the first time, her boss took her behind the hotel and told her the scarf was no longer acceptable. She offered to start wearing a navy one to match the uniform, she says, but was told that wouldn’t fly either.

In November 2006, Abu says she was given the ultimatum: take it off or be fired. She told Walters she would like to stay but couldn’t remove the scarf. He fired her, but she refused to leave his office until he wrote a letter informing her why. She says the letter was in part to show her family what happened. (Abu’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Somalia in 1997. In addition to paying for school, Abu helps with expenses at their south Seattle home.)

According to court documents, the only issue addressed in the letter is the uniform. It states that Abu had expressed a “strong religious conviction that will not allow her to remove a garment that is not part of her uniform.” The scarf is described as “not professional in appearance.”

In addition to showing the letter to her family, Abu retained an attorney and turned the document over to the state’s Human Rights Commission. An agency investigator then interviewed Piramco president Mustaq Ali Pirani, as well as Abu. At that point, Abu claims, the company stopped focusing on the uniform and began attacking her faith.

Abu says Pirani told the investigator that several people in the company are also Muslim and that the problem isn’t with the hijab itself. Rather, because Abu hadn’t worn the scarf at her interview or during her first few weeks of work, the company doubted the sincerity of her beliefs.

“That really did hurt me too, that he doubted me,” she says.

In its findings, included with court documents, the commission found that Abu’s complaint—that she was fired for her beliefs and wearing the hijab—”can be proven by a preponderance of evidence.”

“Head-scarf cases are pretty common nationally,” says Marc Brenman, the Human Rights Commission’s executive director. Brenman adds that unless there is a specific safety hazard posed by the hijab, “the answer is yeah, they ought to be allowed to wear the head scarf.”

Abu filed a federal discrimination suit on Aug. 5 of this year. Pirani did not respond to multiple requests for comment. An assistant for Piramco attorney Kristi Favard says the company has no comment.