Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins has attacked Marks & Spencer over its policy of allowing Muslim checkout staff to refuse to serve customers alcohol and pork products.
The matter arose after an unnamed customer trying to buy a bottle of champagne told the Telegraph they had been left “taken aback” when an “extremely apologetic” Muslim worker asked them to wait for another till to become free. Drinking alcohol is forbidden in Islam, and some Muslims refuse to handle it.
Amid a rash of online opinion on the matter, much of which he shared on his own Twitter feed, Dawkins wrote: "These Marks & Spencer tweets may seem frivolous. But they are serious examples of the kind of RIDICULE religious discrimination deserves."
These Marks & Spencer tweets may seem frivolous. But they are serious examples of the kind of RIDICULE religious discrimination deserves.— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) December 22, 2013
So, can followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster refuse to sell pasta? http://t.co/6r6J4aanjD. Could I refuse to sell baseball caps?— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) December 22, 2013
On Monday the store issued an apology, stating that where employees have religious beliefs that restrict what foods or drinks they can handle, it tries to place them in a "suitable role".
An M&S spokeswoman said: "We regret that in the case highlighted we were not following our own internal policy."
In contrast to the retailer’s directive, staff at Sainsbury's have been told there are no religious grounds for not handling pork and alcohol products, highlighting a split among major food retailers.
Tesco and Asda have both indicated a reluctance to deploy staff who refuse to handle certain items while Morrisons would "respect and work around anyone’s wishes not to handle specific products for religious or cultural reasons".
A spokesman for M&S said the policy also acknowledges the beliefs of Jewish and Christian workers.
Staff not wishing to work on certain days due to religious beliefs would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
He said: "We have guidelines in place that set out the requirements and beliefs of different religions, which we have previously discussed and agreed with religious organisations and community groups.
@_DarkMavis We promote an environment free from discrimination & make reasonable adjustments for our staff while ensuring great service— M&S (@marksandspencer) December 22, 2013
"We treat everyone fairly, so although our colleagues on tills or replenishing stock will be asked to handle alcohol and meat, we will always work closely with individuals to ensure we are inclusive and fair to all."
The Times cites a 2005 report by the Muslim Council of Britain and the former Department of Trade and Industry on how a devout Muslim should respond if asked to work on the meat section of a supermarket.
It says: “If you feel that you cannot handle pork as a Muslim, then you should discuss this with your manager. A policy that all staff must work in the meat section of the supermarket may amount to indirect discrimination since it disadvantages Muslims.
“Your employer should try and accommodate your request where possible.”
Earlier this year two Muslims brought a legal case against Tesco after a prayer room at the branch at which they worked was locked.
The supermarket was found guilty of indirect discrimination and both men were awarded cash for "injury to their feelings", reports the Daily Mail.