Muslim Women Ejected From Cafe Reach Settlement

(CN) – Seven Muslim women ejected from Southern California restaurant Urth Caffe in April 2016 obtained a settlement agreement Thursday requiring the restaurant chain to hold diversity training for its employees and update its seating policies.

The women said that the restaurant’s Laguna Beach location forced them to leave because they were “visibly Muslim,” according to a statement from their attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and law firm Hadsell Stormer & Renick LLP.

The group of friends met at the restaurant for dinner on the evening of April 22, 2016. The establishment was regularly frequented by Muslims, tourists and students from the Arabian Gulf, according to plaintiff’s May 2, 2016 complaint filed in Orange County Superior Court.

Six of the seven women were wearing hijabs and sat in a patio area outdoors.

After about an hour, when the women were having coffee and dessert, the restaurant manager told them they would have to leave because they were violating the cafe’s 45-minute seating time limit during peak hours.

The women pointed out numerous empty tables in the area. Women at a nearby table, where no one was wearing hijab, were not asked to leave even though some of them had been seated before the Muslim women arrived.

Management summoned a security guard and soon thereafter called the Laguna Beach Police Department. Two officers arrived and told the women they would have to leave.

The women said in their complaint that they were victims of religious discrimination after the cafe had been the focus of several hate crimes, including attacks with eggs, tire slashings, and abusive comments.

“In the context of a neighborhood rankled by the presence of young Muslims at the restaurant, Urth Caffe management responded not by protecting its patrons from these racist incidents, but punishing them,” the women said in their 10-page lawsuit.

The named plaintiffs were Sara Khalil Farsakh, Soundus Ahmed, Rawan Hamdan, Sara Soumaya Chamma, Yumna Hameed, Safa Rawag, and Marwa Rawag.

The cafe countersued the women in June 2016, saying its staff merely asked the women to move because they had pulled three “in-demand” tables together. The cafe said it offered to move them to another spot in the restaurant.

The cafe’s attorney, David Yerushalmi, previously called the women’s lawsuit a “fraud and a hoax on the courts and the media,” and their claim that they were asked to leave because of their headscarves was “laughable.”

On his firm’s website, Yerushalmi said the Council on American-Islamic Relations was “behind the scenes organizing this fraudulent lawsuit.”

The women had originally sought punitive damages for religious discrimination, and an injunction while the cafe’s countersuit sought punitive damages for “actual harm” caused by trespass and subsequent media coverage of the incident.

Under the terms of Thursday’s settlement, both parties will file a request to dismiss the action with each side incurring its own cost of litigation.

Urth Caffe has also agreed, under the settlement, to hold diversity trainings for its employees and clarify its seating policy to ensure “it is applied consistently to all customers and to include in its employee handbook a requirement that customer diversity be respected,” according to the ACLU statement.

Employee handbooks will also be updated, directing staff to “engage with customers in a manner that promotes diversity and sensitivity.”

The restaurant chain also agreed to open its Laguna Beach location all day on June 16 with free drinks and desserts for all customers in a public celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“My friends and I took this stand to see change and ensure that any type of discriminatory conduct is never accepted or tolerated,” Farsakh said. “I’m glad this has led to a positive result and I’m hopeful what happened to us will not be repeated again.”

The civil lawsuit brought against the restaurant chain claimed it violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act that requires places of public accommodation to provide all people full and equal services regardless of their religion.

“Today’s agreement demonstrates that rising hostility towards Muslims across the country is not inevitable,” said Mohammad Tajsar, staff attorney at the ACLU. “People of good conscience — like the women who brought this action — continue to successfully fight Islamophobia in all its forms, whether perpetrated by the government or by private businesses in our backyards.”

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