‘Made to feel like criminals’: 7 Muslim women sue California restaurant over discrimination

© Urth Caffe - Laguna Beach
A group of Muslim women are suing a Laguna Beach, California, restaurant for allegedly kicking them out because of their religion, but the owners deny any wrongdoing or discrimination.

“I felt embarrassed, outraged and shocked by the discrimination my friends and I were subjected to,” Sara Farsakh, one of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit filed on Monday, said, according to City News Service. “We committed no crime, we violated no policy. Our only offense to Urth Caffe was that we are group of Muslim women that stood out – visibly stood out – tarnishing their image.”

The seven women, six of whom were wearing the hijab, a traditional head dress worn by Muslim women, contend they went to the restaurant the evening of April 22 when it was not busy.

They said their meals were brought to them on a “staggered basis” between 7:20 pm and 8:15 pm, when they claim a restaurant manager told them they had to leave as they were violating the 45-minute limit supposedly enforced to keep tables available. The women claimed more than 20 tables were unoccupied at the time.

When the women said they either had not received the meal they ordered or finished ones that had been served, they were still told to leave. One of their attorneys, Mohammad Tajsar from Hadsell Stormer & Renick LLP, said the manager laughed off their protests, telling them to leave within 10 minutes, according to a press release on Facebook.

Laguna Beach police were eventually called in and the Muslim diners were escorted out of the restaurant. However, the women noticed that the predominantly white patrons who had been in the restaurant longer than them had not been asked to leave.

Farsakh walked through the restaurant while capturing cell phone video showing a series of empty tables. The video was posted online and had received over 3,400 views and 83 comments as of this writing.

“It felt surreal to be escorted out by Laguna Beach police officers,” said Soondus Ahmed, another of the named plaintiffs. “We were escorted out and made to feel like criminals.”

Ahmed said they were suing the restaurant because they didn’t want another person to be subjected to such discrimination.

“I am doing this for all women who wear the hijab,” Ahmed said.

Officials from Urth Caffe have denied any wrongdoing or committing any discriminatory acts, claiming that the women were asked to leave because they had violated the 45-minute seating policy while other customers were waiting for tables. The restaurant owners have appealed to its customers, asking them to withhold judgement on the women’s assertions “until all of the evidence in this case comes to light.”

The restaurant’s owner, Shallom Berkman, told KABC last week that his wife is Muslim, and he strongly denies any allegations of discrimination. He stressed that the restaurant enforces its 45-minute seating limit, especially on the patio, to be “fair” to all patrons.

Tajsar said that the treatment the women received “is a throwback to the days of ‘whites only’ signs and colored water fountains, with Muslims now being convenient targets for discrimination.”

“Urth Caffe’s attempt to whitewash its upscale clientele by using its seating policy as a justification to expel those who outwardly appear Muslim is both immoral and illegal and should have no place in Orange County’s diverse community,” he added in the press release.

The attorney said that there had been several racially charged incidents involving Muslims around the café in recent weeks – tires have been slashed and the restaurant has been egged.

The civil rights lawsuit, which was filed in Orange County Superior Court on Tuesday, does not cite a specific dollar amount for compensation or punitive damages.