Video: Faith support groups grow

By Anne Thompson Chief environmental correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/23/2005 8:00:58 PM ET 2005-03-24T01:00:58

Five times a day Muslims are called to prayer, including right in the middle of Kamal Shenaq's workday at Ford Motor Co. But before he can pray, he must perform what's called ablution.

“[It is] a special wash to show that I am clean, I am ready,” he says.

That practice, which includes the washing of feet, caused problems in the men's rooms, Daniel Dunnigan recalls.

“I remember seeing signs in the restroom that said, 'this sink is for hands not feet,'” says Dunnigan.

So Shenaq turned to Ford's Interfaith Network, a company-sponsored organization that Dunnigan now heads.

“The person doesn't have to check their faith at the door. They also don't need to be obnoxious about it during the day in the workplace,” he says.

Faith support groups such as Ford's have mushroomed from just 50 a dozen years ago to well more than 1,200 today, according to one survey.

David Miller teaches graduate students at Yale how to incorporate faith and ethics at work. He sees it as an outgrowth of diversity that acknowledged race, then gender and now spirituality.

“People are realizing their faith can help interpret where we spend most of our waking hours,” says Miller.

The key for businesses, he says, is to be faith-friendly.

But companies can and have gone too far in some instances, violating federal law protecting workers from religious discrimination.

The road to trouble for Universal Traffic Services, a Michigan trucking company, was paved with taped messages to workers from its president, Ray Chester.

“This is from Colossians 3:22 and 23. Where it says, ‘Servants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters.’ In this case, it’s our clients,” says Chester on one tape.

Such messages and daily memos with references to God in memos were too much for three employees, who sued and won six-figure judgments.

“They were hired to manage freight in a trucking business,” says plaintiff's attorney Angela Ekker. “They were not hired to say prayers.”

Saying the case is over, Chester declined to be interviewed.

Balancing work and faith is not easy. But at Ford, it was as simple as a hand-held shower, so Muslims, like Kamal Shenaq, can prepare for prayer.

“If I'm respected, then I should do the best I can,” he says.

It’s about respect for the worker and the worshipper — who often are one and the same.

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